Killer Whales Attack Couple's Boat, Leaving Them Adrift Miles From Land

A couple from the U.K. was left adrift miles off the coast of Portugal this week after killer whales attacked their boat. The couple, aged 49 and 51, had to be rescued in the early hours of November 2 after the orca showed interest in the vessel.

Reports about killer whales approaching boats in the waters off Spain and Portugal began to circulate in July 2020. At the time, authorities identified three juvenile orca believed to be responsible. In some cases, boats were damaged, with the killer whales ramming the rudders.

Why the killer whales had started to behave this way was unclear, but researchers said it was unlikely to be aggressive and more likely related to them being playful. However, some of the incidents would last for hours, with passengers describing them as frightening.

David Smith recounted his encounter with killer whales in October 2020, telling the BBC that the orca had rammed his boat for two hours. "I don't frighten easily and this was terrifying," he said.

"I looked at this animal—and it was jet black and brilliant white. It was continuous. I think there were six or seven animals, but it seemed like the juvenile ones—the smaller ones—were most active. They seemed to be going for the rudder, the wheel would just start spinning really fast every time there was an impact."

Over the course of 2020, more and more encounters were reported. At one point, Spanish authorities took the step of banning sailing vessels measuring 49 feet or less in stretches of water frequented by the killer whales.

The latest attack took place about four nautical miles from São Julião beach, on Portugal's west coast. Authorities were alerted at 4.13 a.m. on November 2 and members of the Cascais Lifeguard Station attended the incident.

A statement from Portugal's National Maritime Authority said the vessel was adrift at sea. "Upon arrival at the sailboat, the members of the lifeguard station found that the two crew were in good physical condition," it said.

"The National Maritime Authority and the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests recommend to all mariners that, in the event of sighting of these mammals, the engine be turned off, in order to inhibit the rotation of the propeller, and the rudder blade immobilized, thus discouraging these mammals to interact with the mobile structures of the vessels."

To understand the killer whales' behavior better, Spain's Ministry of Environment has launched an investigation into the encounters.

"The objective is to do a detailed follow-up of the cases of interaction of killer whales with sailboats in order to minimize the impacts on the species and provide safety to the boats," it said in a statement announcing the investigation on October 22.

"In addition, a pilot project will be designed and launched to try to understand the causes and reduce the episodes of interaction between killer whales and sailboats."

killer whale
Stock photo of a killer whale. Orca have been interacting with vessels off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, in some cases damaging their rudders. Getty Images