Two Southern Resident killer whales float above the water.
Two killer whales.David K. Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research, permit number: NMFS 21238.
  • A traumatized female orca could be behind the increased killer whale attacks on boats.
  • A traumatic event may have triggered a change in White Gladis' behavior, experts told LiveScience.
  • They believe that other orcas that inhabit the Atlantic off the Iberian Peninsula may be imitating her.

A traumatized orca called White Gladis may be behind the rise in killer whale attacks on boats in the Atlantic Ocean, scientists believe.

While most orca interactions with boats are harmless, there has been a spike in aggressive behavior towards boats since 2020, biologist Alfredo López Fernandez told LiveScience. As Insider recently reported, there have even been three cases of the distinctive black and white creatures sinking vessels by ramming into them.

It seems like orcas may be imitating this aggressive behavior from other killer whales, with López Fernandez saying that one female named White Gladis could be the culprit.

Experts believe White Gladis may have had a "critical moment of agony," such as colliding with a boat or being trapped during illegal fishing, LiveScience reported. This event may have traumatized her and caused her to start ramming other boats. 

As orcas are highly sociable creatures, López Fernandez said they could be passing on the behavior through imitation.

"We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them because they consider it something important in their lives," López Fernandez told LiveScience.

A collaboration of researchers found more than 200 reports of "interactions," where orcas approach or touch a vessel in the ocean around the Iberian Peninsula since 2020.

Other experts believe that the change in behavior may just be a "fad."

"They are incredibly curious and playful animals, and so this might be more of a plaything as opposed to an aggressive thing," Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington, told LiveScience.

Yuri Smityuk/Getty Images

While the vast majority of the attacks do not cause boats to sink, the encounters can still be terrifying, as one British couple on vacation in Morocco recently discovered.

The couple told The Times how they had considered escaping on a life raft after a pod of orcas attacked their yacht during a sailing trip off the coast of northwestern Africa.

Janet Morris and Stephen Bidwell were on an already-bumpy ride when the crew spotted the killer whales on May 2 in the Strait of Gibraltar.

The couple was awoken from a nap by crew members shouting: "Orcas! Orcas!" as a pod of killer whales began banging into their 46-foot boat, per The Times.

Morris, a business consultant, said, "I couldn't believe it when I saw them — it's extremely rare. We were sitting ducks. We were amazingly calm, but underneath, we were thinking, 'Oh my god.'"

"We were petrified. It wasn't until afterward that we talked about being very scared," the 58-year-old added, mainly because it was hard to distinguish the turbulent weather from the movement of the whales. 

The Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, has been referred to as "orca alley" due to the large number of killer whales in the area.

Read the original article on Business Insider