Orca attacks Dutch sailors near Norway.  “I thought: what a big dolphin.”

Orca attacks Dutch sailors near Norway. “I thought: what a big dolphin.”

Orcas in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago in northern Norway.Sylvain Cordier/Getty Image

Dutchman Wim Rutten, 72, set sail without a doubt on Monday afternoon across the Norwegian Sea, from the Scottish Shetland Islands to Bergen in Norway. This was the 45th day of his sailing voyage to Iceland and the Faroe Islands. He was going alone, the engine was running and he had just cast a row of four shiny hooks to catch some mackerel when suddenly a black fin appeared behind the boat. I keep thinking: what a big dolphin, Rotten looks back. But what happened? It was a meter-long orca that targeted his boat, Nora. “He hit the stern and the rudder a few times,” says Rotten. “You just don’t expect it. Not here at least.”

Orcas have been preying on sailing ships in the Strait of Gibraltar for a few years now. This was a new and mysterious phenomenon in itself. Rotten’s encounter with the orcas is “extremely special,” says Jeroen Hokendijk, a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NEWS). As far as is known, this is the first time an orca has interacted with a sailing ship off Norway, he says. This means that it is about a completely different group of orca, which cannot mimic the behavior. Therefore, separate research is required. This makes it more exciting.

Rotten’s trial is currently the only one in Norway, but the consequences could be dire. Orcas can learn the behavior of their fellow residents, so they don’t have to commit to bombing the Norwegian orca. Orca attacks are already common around the Strait of Gibraltar: 57 this year alone, according to figures from the Atlantic Orca Working Group, which tracks reports. The animals were even struck so hard three times that a sailing ship sank.

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entangled in fishing nets

Meanwhile, scientists puzzle over why killer whales throughout the Iberian Peninsula exhibit this behavior. One theory is that orcas rebel against fishing boats. Fishermen around the Strait of Gibraltar have been known to snatch stocks of bluefin tuna from under the noses of killer whales. Orcas are also regularly entangled in fishing nets and lines. Reason enough to respond, is the thought. Hoekendijk says this theory seems less likely in Norway. “There is no evidence that orcas were harmed by fishermen there.”

Meanwhile, Rutten is cruising happily on his Koopmans 34: “Aluminum ship, with rudder with trolley and winch, lifted.” In other words: the orca couldn’t damage his boat. Rutten himself, except for a moment of shock, is also unharmed. Whether orca in question caught others as well, he doesn’t know. “I made an announcement on public VHF,” he says. “But I don’t think anyone heard. Or they didn’t care.”

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