An orca has repeatedly rammed a yacht off the coast of Shetland in the North Sea in a dramatic development that sees orca attacks on yachts for the first time outside the Iberian peninsula, where orca attacks have been reasonably common...


Dr Wim Rutten, a 72-year-old retired Dutch physicist was sailing alone from Lerwick to Bergen when an orca appeared and hit the back of the aluminium hulled, seven tonne boat, the Guardian reported. At the time Dr Rutten was fishing for mackerel and had a line out of the back of the boat.

Dr Rutten told the Guardian that the orca hit again and again creating ‘soft shocks’ through the aluminium hull. The orca stayed behind the boat, he said, ‘looking for the keel. Then he disappeared … but came back at a fast speed, twice or three times … and circled a bit’

Scientists have said that juvenile orcas ‘attacking’ yachts off the Iberian coast could be imitating the behaviour of one individual adult orca named White Gladis. Orcas have now sunk three yachts off the Iberian coast in the past 18 months and close encounters have been reported with over 100 other yachts in increasingly aggressive behaviour.

‘Our theory is that this orca, White Gladis, had an “adverse moment”, perhaps related to a fishing boat while hunting tuna. We think that this orca had an incident and that she is trying to stop all boats,’ biologist Monica Gonzalez told Yachting Monthly.

‘We think that the other orcas are juveniles and are copying her behaviour because she is an adult. They think that (this is adult behaviour) and “we need to do this to survive”’, said Gonzalez, who works with CEMMA, the Spanish NGO group that coordinates the study of marine mammals and is part of the working group of the Groupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA).

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The group of orcas involved in the encounters around the Iberian peninsula appears to number 13 juveniles and two adults – the other named Grey Gladis – out of a larger group of 39. ‘Gladis is not training the juveniles,’ said Gonzalez, and is not necessarily present at every attack.

Often the orca prefer to swim in smaller groups of up to 6. The orca interactions with boats appears to be linked to the migration of tuna exiting the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar and heading west and north around the Iberian Peninsula into the Bay of Biscay.

‘The behaviour of orcas varies wildly: sometimes it is a single orca that approaches or sometimes they come in a group and sometimes it appears that adults are standing off and directing juveniles,’ said John Burbeck, orca project leader at the Cruising Association.

‘Sometimes the orcas also come at the yacht with a violent blow and cause significant damage immediately or sometimes a group of orcas come in and play with the boat for an extended period of up to 90 minutes.’

Although most encounters between orcas and yachts are harmless, scientists are struggling to explain the orcas’ increasingly aggressive behaviour. Orcas are intelligent, social creatures that can easily learn and reproduce behavioural patterns.

Data from the Cruising Association, which works alongside Spanish and Portuguese scientists at the GTOA, shows that the number of orca incidents has increased in the last few months. ‘In the first three months of this year, there has been a dramatic increase (16 incidents as opposed to 2 last year),’ said Burbeck. ‘In May, with 10 incidents reported, it has already exceeded the total for last year and it doesn’t look like it is going to let up. May has been very, very busy.’

In 2022, there were 132 interactions with orca, with 99 yachts damaged and two sinking, data from the CA showed. There were also 256 uneventful passages. Around 25% of the damaged yachts needed to be towed to port.

The latest yacht to be fatally struck was on the night of May 4 off the coast of Barbate, Cadiz, when three orcas left the yacht Alboran Champagne without a rudder and taking on water, causing the four crew to abandon ship. The Spanish coastguard towed the yacht but it sank before reaching port.

‘Our first advice is to avoid the orcas,’ said John Burbeck. ‘To avoid interactions, stay less than two miles off shore and navigate in less than 20 metres of water.’

The GTOA operates a traffic light information system on orca sightings on its website. There are also two apps: GT Orca and Orcinus which give information. A Facebook page Orca Attack Reports gives information as does Orca Discussions on Telegram.

The CA this month launched an updated orca information portal and is urging all sailors to report interactions and safe passages via the portal.