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Killer whales attack sailboats during international race: "A dangerous moment"

Are orcas coordinating attacks on boats?
Are orcas coordinating attacks on boats? 06:06

Two sailing teams competing in a round-the-world race had a scary encounter with a pod of orcas on Thursday afternoon, race officials said. 

The two teams are part of The Ocean Race, an international competition that also gathers climate data. The race has seven stretches across the world, but the two boats that encountered the killer whales are participating in a smaller three-leg version of the competition, called The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint.  

One boat was crewed by Team JAJO, a group from Amsterdam. The other is crewed by Mirpuri Trifork Racing, a team from Portugal. The boats were traveling through the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Gibraltar when the encounter happened at around 2:50 local time, the organization said in a news release.

An orca interacts with a boat in The Ocean Race.  Brend Schuil / Team JAJO / The Ocean Race

Jelmar van Beek, skipper of the JAJO Team, reported that there were multiple orcas involved. Both teams said that there was no damage to the boats and reported there were no injuries, but said the orcas had pushed up against the boat and nudged and bitten at the rudders. In one case, an orca rammed the boat.  

"Twenty minutes ago we got hit by some orcas," said Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek in a news release. "Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders. Impressive to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team. We took down the sails and slowed down the boat as quickly as possible and luckily after a few attacks they went away … This was a scary moment."

ORCA ENCOUNTER AT GIBRALTAR FOR TEAM JAJO | The Ocean Race by The Ocean Race on YouTube

The incident comes amid reports of seemingly coordinated attacks on boats by orcas. Multiple such incidents have been reported around Gibraltar, which neighbors Spain. Incidents where orcas have worked individually or in a pod to ram a boat's hull or rudders have tripled in the past two years, researchers have said, but it's not clear why. Between July and November 2020, there were 52 such interactions recorded by GTOA, a group that studies orcas in the Gibraltar area. In 2022, there were 207 such interactions. In at least three cases, the damage has resulted in sinking, The Ocean Race said. 

A boat captain who was attacked twice by orcas, once in 2020 and once in 2022, told Newsweek that the whales seemed to have a plan. 

"First time, we could hear them communicating under the boat," he told Newsweek. "This time, they were quiet, and it didn't take them that long to destroy both rudders. ... Looks like they knew exactly what they are doing. They didn't touch anything else." 

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