Killer Whale Attacks: Boats, Surfers, and Tilikum

New Zealand Surfer with killer whale

The tranquil blue waters of the Strait of Gibraltar have been disrupted by a wave of chilling events, as killer whale attacks on seemingly peaceful sailing vessels send shockwaves through the region. 

After what appears to be an orchestrated string of assaults where several boats have been sunk, many believe the orca violence could stem from a sophisticated plot of revenge – led by an orca called Gladis.

The latest killer whale attack causing a ship to sink took place in May, when the hull of sailboat Alboran Champagne was repeatedly sledge-hammered by one large orca, while its rudder was tickled by two smaller orcas.

After the vessel started taking on water, the crew made the unfortunate mayday call (in May, no less). The ship was abandoned and left adrift to sink.

Why are killer whales attacking ships?

One theory goes that Gladis had a traumatizing run-in with a boat and is now seeking revenge, and recruiting other orcas to aid in her cause.  

Typically, these killer whale attacks involve orcas approaching the stern to first investigate whether or not it’s dragging any fishing line. Once it’s confirmed that it’s clear of any line, the orcas will usually ram the boat to pivot its course and slow it down.

Once the boat slows to a crawl, the orcas go for the rudder, which they snap off like a potato chip.  

British sailor April Boyes, aged 31, said: “What started off as a seemingly unique encounter ended with orcas breaking off our rudder from the boat, then proceeding to tear bits off the boat for an hour.”

Killer Whales Attack Rudder of Boat. Photo: April Boyes.

The other theory? 

It’s all in good fun.  They’re just goofin’ around. 

The highly sociable apex predators are known for their playfulness, especially when it comes to their food.  

Below, we see a killer whale attack, kill, and proceed to play with a seal “as if it were exulting in triumph”.

The biggest kid in the playground usually makes the rules.  And right now, that’s Gladis. 

Regardless of the reason, play or revenge, Gladis has decided that boats are her target. 

Has anyone died?

No, no one has died or been seriously injured.  

The Strait of Gibraltar is one of the busiest waterways in the world and it’s estimated that for every 100 boats passing through there are at least 20 interactions where killer whales attack boats or small ships.

The 35-strong sub-population of orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar has recently risen to attention, following reports of the creatures attacking boat rudders, leaving more than 250 vessels damaged – and three of them sunk – in a spate of incidents over the last three years.”

What is a killer whale?

Essentially, killer whales are highly developed, incredibly sensitive, giant, sharp-toothed dolphins.

A cosmopolitan species, killer whales are found in all of the world’s oceans.  They’re bougie.

With their distinct black and white markings (don’t call it a penguin suit – these girls eat penguins for breakfast) large size, and powerful dorsal fin, these creatures are known for their complex matriarchal social structures and remarkable communication skills. 

Despite their name, killer whales are not typically aggressive toward swimmers or surfers, but are apex predators renowned for their hunting prowess.

Killer Whale Shows off Its Teeth. Photo:

Why are they called killer whales?

The name ‘killer whale’ derives from ‘killers of whales’, not killers of people.

Killer whales have been known to prey on other whale species larger than themselves and are recognized as the sole known predators of great white sharks

They’re bad mamma jammas.

How big are killer whales?

Male killer whales typically range in length from about 20 to 26 feet (6 to 8 meters) and can weigh between 8,000 to 12,000 pounds (3,600 to 5,400 kilograms). 

The largest recorded male killer whale was 32 feet (9.8 m) in length and weighed 22,000 lbs. (10,000 kg).

But the males are just the brutes, while, as already mentioned, the females are the brains behind the operations. 

Killer whales live in a complex matriarchal society, in which sons and daughters stay with their mother throughout their lives, even after they have offspring of their own.

In the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s Gladis who swims at the top of the hierarchy, and it’s her behavior that the other whales imitate.

If Gladis is biting off rudders and sinking ships, then that’s what the rest of the killer whales in her pod will also do.

Do killer whales attack surfers?

The short answer is no, but there has been one well-documented incident of a surfer being attacked by a killer whale.

“On September 9, 1972, Californian surfer Hans Kretschmer reported being bitten by an orca at Point Sur. Most maintain that this remains the only instance of a wild orca biting a human. His wounds required 100 stitches.”

Allegedly, the doctor who sewed up old Hans said that the wound looked like someone had taken an axe to his leg.

There is one other not-so-well documented tale of a killer whale killing an Inuit man in 1955, and this one, if true, is a harrowing tale.

The story, passed by word of mouth, goes that a young man ignored the advice of elders and went out on the ice covering Grand Suttie Bay (Foxe Basin, Canada). The elders had cautioned the young man that the ice was not strong enough.

There were a pod of orcas trapped in a polynya, which is a stretch of open water surrounded by ice.

It was alleged by two Inuit elders that the pod of killer whales stalked the young man, deliberately broke the ice under him, and ate him.

Despite the claims, researchers were never able to corroborate the incident.

Desperate animals, do desperate things.

If, in fact, the whales were trapped, they could have very easily resorted to hunting the young man who ventured too close.

These are perhaps the only two events where an orca has drawn human blood in the wild, but there have been many unique, and often terrifying, encounters.

Some of them with surfers.

Killer Whale Encounters with Surfers

Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

In 2013, Adam Chilton was filming a group of surfers in Tofino, when they nearly found themselves mixed up with a pack of sea lions being hunted by an organized pod of killer whales.

As the sea lions and orcas neared the crowd of surfers, the surfers smartly started paddling hard for shore.

Although orcas are highly intelligent, equipped with great hearing and vision, making it unlikely for them to mistake a surfer for a sea lion, I don’t blame them.

Sea lions, the salty bastards, would have probably maneuvered the surfers in between them and the orcas.

You give me a call when you’re peachy with getting shoved between an apex predator and its meal and I’ll take you out for a beer, because I’ve got some questions.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Almost a year ago, professional big wave surfer, waterman, and general hellion of nature Mark Healey came across a pod of orcas hunting dolphins in Cabo San Lucas. Healey wasn’t in the water with them, but he did capture some increíble footage.

The pod of killer whales are seen dragging half-munched dolphins, positioning them for their calves to have a go. A wholesome teaching moment for the apex predators.

Orcas and dolphins are of the same family, and both are self aware, which means the killer whales made the conscious decision to hunt them.

Of course they did. Nature is metal.

“How am I going to help the dolphins? These things are killing machines!” says Healey as he takes us through the footage.

Taranaki, New Zealand

Here’s a classic encounter.

In 2009, Craig Hunter of New Zealand was surfing off of New Zealand’s North Island, and has been for a self-proclaimed 50 years, when he spotted an adult male orca and two young calves nearby.

Most surfers, as already demonstrated in Tofino, would probably paddle in.

Not Craig.

“My outlook is they are big enough and quick enough. If they thought I was a seal, I’d be long gone.”

Sound logic by the Kiwi, but Craig continues on to give us another barnacle of wisdom, something for those fair-weather surfers to hold onto.

“There was no way I was going in because the waves were too good!” said a frothy Craig after a dream session with good waves and friendly orcas.

He’s not wrong.

New Zealand surfer with killer whale. Photo: AP
Would you stay out?

Houghton Bay, New Zealand

While we’re in New Zealand…

The video starts with a crackerjack from the filmer in his endearing Kiwi accent, “Those guys are gonna get a fuckin’ shock when it swims between ’em.”

Skip ahead to 1:30 and we see that two young calves have snuck away from Mama long enough to catch a couple waves with the boys.

The calves are playful and unbothered by the 10 surfers in the lineup. In fact, they seem to be showing off a bit, before they get the whistle from Mom and start heading back out.

Lofoten Islands, Norway

In 2017, a surf contest in Norway was interrupted by a pod of killer whales, but what’s most interesting in this one is not the killer whales themselves, but rather one of the surfers in the heat while the contest was bombarded.

I’ll let you watch the video first.

As you’ve seen in the video above, when the pod of orcas arrive there’s a surfer in red who raises both of his arms skyward in joy. That surfer in red is named Shannon Ainslee, a South African man with an interesting story.

South African surfer Shannon Ainslee with the board he was attacked on. Photo: The Sun

When Shannon Ainslee was just 15 years old, he was attacked by not one, but two great white sharks at the same time.

He was surfing a surf spot called Nahoon Reef in South Africa, a place known for two things aside from its fun and shapely waves: the annual sardine run, and the white sharks said run attracts.

The impressive run of sardine from Durban to Cape Town occurs each winter, which is the season in which Shannon Ainslee found himself out in the lineup at Nahoon Reef with his friends.

While paddling for a wave, Ainslee was ambushed by two white sharks.

In Ainslee’s own words:

“The shark on the right was going for my head and shoulders, but it missed me, fortunately, because the shark on the left got me first.”

The shark on the left bit Ainslee’s board and hand, nearly severing off a few of his digits.

It’s the only double shark attack on a surfer or human ever documented.

As a grown man, Ainslee settled in Jeffrey’s Bay for a time before escaping to the cold arctic waters of Norway where there are no sharks.

Then, seventeen years after the attack in 2000, Ainslee was confronted with yet another of the ocean’s apex predators in Norway.

“While I was paddling I saw this big dark thing coming straight for me! I thought it was a shark..but at the same time I knew it couldn’t be because there are no sharks in Norway.”

This encounter went much differently, though I’m not sure if I’m going to be surfing with Ainslee any time soon.

Some people attract mosquitoes. Shannon Ainslee attracts big things with teeth that swim in the ocean.

Still, Ainslee’s love of surfing has never wavered or wobbled.

It took him just 6 weeks to start surfing again after the double shark attack in 2000.

At this point, between the sharks, killer whales, and the cold, I’m not sure there’s much that would ever deter Shannon Ainslee from surfing.

For that, we salute you.

Surfers are not the only lucky ones having encounters with killer whales in the wild.

Non-Surfer Encounters with Killer Whales

New Zealand, Once Again

In 2014 a young man named Levi Gavin, 23, was diving with his cousin for kina and crayfish at the Horahora Estuary when they spotted a large pod of orcas about 300 meters away. Upon the sighting they started to swim for shore, when one of the killer whales swooped in and grabbed the catch bag attached to Gavin’s arm.

Then the killer whale dived, dragging Lee Gavin with it.

Unable to free his arm, the orca pulled him below for what he estimates to be 40 seconds.

“I got to my last breath. I couldn’t really think at the time.”

The rope connecting his arm to the catch bag and the orca came undone, freeing Gavin. He released his weight belt and floated to the surface, where his cousin spotted him and swam the two of them in.

“My cousin didn’t want to go out [that day]… He offered to give me a knife to strap around my leg and I said no to that. If I had had the knife I could have cut the rope.”

Gavin lives to dive another day.

Diver Lee Gavin who was almost drowned by a killer whale. Photo: NZ Herald.
Lee Gavin of New Zealand.

BBC’s Frozen Planet

In the Arctic during the filming of the show during 2011, a pod of orcas attempted to swamp an 18 foot Zodiac containing a videographer and a steersman.

The crew had already filmed the killer whales using the same method to wash seals off of the floes and into the water, where other orcas would be waiting with open mouths.

Perhaps, the orcas were on a revenge spree for the camera crew revealing their secrets.

What would the killer whales have done had the men been knocked from the boat? We’ll never know, I guess.

Back to New Zealand

A woman swimming near Hahei Beach of New Zealand’s North Island suddenly found herself surrounded by a pod of killer whales close to shore. She didn’t even stop swimming.

Can you imagine having your wiggling toes that close to the mouth of the fiercest hunter in the ocean?

The more I learn about killer whales, the more I hope I would respond to an encounter like this with just as much poise.

But truly, anything large and swimming in the ocean is terrifying. I don’t care who you are.

I think we need to recall New Zealand surfer Craig Hunter’s advice, who said, “My outlook is they are big enough and quick enough. If they thought I was a seal, I’d be long gone.”

True, Craig. Very true.

Could killer whales mistake surfers or swimmers for seals?

Killer whales are not sharks. Orcas have excellent eyesight in and out of the water. They also have a well-developed sense of hearing and can easily tell the difference between a seal and a human.

Killers whales do things with intention. If ever they start attacking humans in the wild, we can be certain it’s because they want to — and they know what they’re doing.

Killer whales are one of ten animals, including humans, that are self-aware.

Self-aware recognize self-aware, says the human whose species hunts everything.

Also the orcas who kill the dolphins.

And the chimpanzees who kill the…chimpanzees.

*Side Note: Chimpanzee society is hellishly violent, especially when compared to the monk-like complex of bonobo society. Worth a look into.*

And the [insert self aware animal] who kills the [insert other self aware animal].

Self aware recognize self aware, then they kill them it seems is the more likely story — unless you’re a bonobo.

Killer Whales Swimming. Photo: Surfer Today.

List of the 10 Self-Aware Animals:
  1. Humans
  2. Orangutans
  3. Chimpanzees
  4. Gorillas
  5. Bottlenose Dolphins
  6. Elephants
  7. Orcas
  8. Bonobos
  9. Rhesus Macaques
  10. European Magpies

How is Self Awareness Identified?

“In humans, we identify it as having conscious knowledge of our own character, feelings and desires, and being able to imagine how others might perceive us. It also means having self conscious emotions like pride or shame.

“In the wider animal kingdom, the bar is lowered because it’s seemingly impossible to measure what animals think and feel. Instead, we look for signs that they recognize they exist separately from other animals and the environment.”

The best way to determine this scientifically is with the mirror test.

The Mirror Test

Developed in the 1970s, the experimenter discreetly marks the animal with a colored dye, or puts a colored dot on their forehead. The animal is then presented with a mirror and their reaction is observed.

If an animal is self-aware they’ll turn and adjust their body to get a better view and touch the colored spot or try to remove it. This proves that the animal understands the reflection is its own.”

Chimpanzee taking the Mirror Test. Photo: World of Lucid Dreaming

What about captive killer whales? Have they ever attacked anyone?

There have been many killer whale attacks on humans by captive orcas over the years. Four have been fatal.

Tilikum, an orca captured in Iceland in 1983, is responsible for three of these four fatal attacks.

The most notorious of these captive killer whale attacks involved Dawn Brancheau, an experienced trainer at SeaWorld Orlando.

In 2010, officials stated, “that Tilikum grabbed Brancheau by her ponytail and pulled her into the water, drowning her. Eyewitness trainers and audience members, however, stated that Tilikum dragged Brancheau into the water by her forearm. The autopsy determined that the trainer died of ‘multiple traumatic injuries and drowning’.”

Tilikum was involved with two other fatalities.

The first involved Keltie Lee Byrne, a Canadian trainer at Sealand of the Pacific.

“The incident occurred on February 20, 1991 whilst Keltie was working a shift at Sealand of the Pacific, unaware that it would be her last. The 20-year-old girl slipped into the pool of three orcas, and although she tried to pull herself back out, one of the whales (Tilikum) pulled her back into the water by her foot.

Although trainers at Sealand of the Pacific attempted to help Keltie, they were no match for the three orca whales, and despite being a strong swimmer, the young woman eventually drowned in the pool. It took two hours before her body could be recovered from the water, where she was found to have bruises and bites across her body.”

The other incident involved a man named Daniel Dukes, a 27 year old from South Carolina.

“SeaWorld has maintained that Dukes was a vagrant who climbed into Tilikum’s pool and drowned, while the coroner’s report, along with animal rights advocates for Tilikum, have pointed out that Dukes’ corpse was found severely mutilated by the whale.

Dukes is generally regarded by the media as a trespasser and nuisance rather than a direct victim of Tilikum, although this perception has been challenged with the release of the documentary Blackfish.”

Trainer Dawn Brancheau. Photo: AP.
Trainer Dawn Brancheau.

What do killer whales eat?

Killer whales are opportunistic predators with a diverse diet that varies based on their specific eco-type. 

This includes a variety of fish, sharks, rays, and marine mammals such as seals, other species of dolphin, and whales.

Their remarkable intelligence and cooperative hunting strategies make them dangerously effective hunters, capable of tackling an enormous buffet of prey. Further, they have no known natural predators.

Translation: They eat whatever they want!

Killer Whale attacks Seal. Photo: Barcroft Media

What happens next in the Strait of Gibraltar?

Frankly, Gladis and her merry gang are going to continue to do as they please, which is hard to predict. 

They could stop attacking boats tomorrow, or this could escalate until someone is seriously injured, or worse, dies.

In that case, it’s anyone’s guess what the human response will be.

Father, surfer, poet.


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