A BRITISH sailor was left "terrified" after a group of orcas attacked his boat for hours as he desperately called the coastguard for help.
For two hours, six or seven orcas, also known as killer whales, continuously rammed the underside of David Smith's 45ft yacht as he was sailing off the coast of Portugal last month.
"I don’t frighten easily and this was terrifying," David said in an interview with the BBC.
"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."
During the terrifying ordeal, David was part of a team delivering a boat from France to Gibraltar – he had "quit the rat race to sail" back in 2013.
The crew initially thought the killers whales were dolphins, but soon realised they were behaving strangely.
The team knew something was wrong after one of the whales disappeared beneath the boat and David heard a loud thumping sound.
David contacted the Portuguese coastguard 20 miles away in Porto, who advised David and his team to be as "uninteresting" as possible and switch off the motor and take down the sails.
“So then we were just drifting. But while I was on the phone I could hear them ramming the boat," David said.
"At one point, one of the larger animals came right to the stern and flipped onto its back – you could see its bright white underside."
David, who was concerned the whales might dislodge the rudder stock, said he "was definitely preparing to ask the Portuguese coastguard to send a helicopter to get us off".
The incident off the coast of Portugal is one of a number of attacks in recent months.
Scientists said there have been at least 40 orca incidents along the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal since July.
The attacks, some of which have left boats damaged, have taken place in different parts of the Spanish north coast, particularly around Galicia in the north-west.
Several videos of the incidents show the huge black and white creatures buffeting boats and circling the vessels.
In September, a Spanish Navy sailboat, Mirfak, saw its rudder snapped off after one encounter with aggressive orcas.
In another incident, Halcyon Yachts were taking a 36ft vessel to the UK from the Galician city of La Coruna when a killer whale rammed it at least 15 times.
Following the incidents, the government temporarily banned sailboats sailing in the area on September 22 to prevent further attacks.
Once David and his crew arrived in Gibraltar, their boat was taken as another piece of evidence in the ongoing investigation into the attacks.
One expert has suggested a harpoon strike by poachers has sparked "revenge attacks" from a rogue orca pod.
ORCAS – HOW DANGEROUS ARE THEY?
ORCAS – also known as killer whales – are the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family.
The creatures are dubbed "killer whales" as they hunt and eat other smaller species of dolphin.
Some also feed exclusively on fish, while others hunt marine mammals like seals and other dolphins.
They're known as apex predators meaning they're at the top of the food-chain and no other animals feed on them.
There are no recorded incidents of orcas attacking humans before the bizarre boat-bashings, but they have been known to feast on other land-dwelling mammals like moose who swim between islands.
Victor J Hernandez, author and naturalist, said an illegal fishing incident in July sparked an increasing number of run-ins between the animals and passing vessels.
Hernandez believes the attacks have been carried out by a pod of between nine and 13 orcas, led by a male called Pingu.
Hernandez said: "Sailors in the area who know Pingu’s pod very well due to their markings have claimed that they were attacked with harpoons in July.
"The crew of the illegal fishing boat was probably scared when they saw them approaching so close."
According to Hernandez, orcas have a good memory – like dolphins: "Two of the youngest orcas have been hitting sailboats because they are traumatised by these kinds of vessels.
"They hit and bite the rudders because it reminds them of the harpoon incident."
Experts are still divided on whether the giant creatures are "playing" with or attacking the boats – but one sailor caught up in a 30-hour barrage where an orca battered his boat said anyone who experiences it would be scared.
Christian Bach, from Swizerland said: "They talk about interactions, about games.
"I would like to see some of those biologists on board my ship at dawn on Sunday. I think they would also be afraid."
But scientist Dr Ruth Esteban suggests the killer whales have been playing, rather than attacking.
"They always seem to go for the rudder, and I think that’s because it’s a mobile part of the vessel," Ruth, who has studied this population of orcas for six years, told the BBC.
"In some cases they can move the whole boat with it. We see, in some of the videos, the sailing boat turning almost 180 degrees.
"If they see that they have the power to move something really big, maybe that’s really impressive for them."
Ruth acknowledges the incidents must have been "really scary" for those involved, but she said it should not be called an "attack".
"We call it an interaction," she said.
Biologist Renaud de Stephanis, who is investigating the recent attacks, said he has experienced the behaviour on his own boat, when a group of orcas chased it.
“They love it. And don’t know why,” he told the BBC. "It just seems to be something they really like and that’s it."
Though killer whales they do not typically attack humans, their name refers to the mammal's ability to take down large marine animals, such as sea lions and whales, according to Live Science.
According to SeaWorld, it is difficult to know the number of killer whales given their worldwide distribution, but it is estimated that there are about 50,000.
Listed as endangered since 2005, the orcas' population has been declining over the years.
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