Feb 24, 2024

Let's Talk About White Gladis

Tuesday, October 31st, 2023.

A vessel known as the Grazie Mamma II is passing though the Strait of Gibraltar, an eight-mile passage between the southern tip of Spain and northern peak of Morocco.1

Owned by Polish sailing company Morskie Mile, the Grazie Mamma II is mid-sized yacht around 13 meters in length. She is not new to these waters - like many of Morskie Mile's vessels, she has made countless tours throughout the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Designed for comfortable cruises primarily around Italy and the Canary Islands, she features four cabins with a safe capacity of up to 10 people.2 She currently has six participants on board. They will all return home safely, but today the Grazie Mamma II will not share the same fate.

As the ship passed through the Strait, it was approached by a pod of orcas (Orcinus orca). Targeting the rudder fin, the cetaceans rammed into the vessel over a duration of 45 minutes. The interaction caused extensive damage and a leak in the boat, and despite a Naval rescue of the crew and an attempt to bring her into the nearby Tanger-Med port, she sank around 16:00 UTC.3 4

This is only the most recent of major interactions between sailing vessels and orcas in southwestern European waters, and the fourth time the animals had sunk a ship.

The Iberian orca subpopulation, where the behavior seems to have begun and flourished most, is considered critically endangered by IUCN, consisting of few pods that migrate along Portugal, through the Strait of Gibraltar, to the northern waters above Spain. The groups do not always travel together, but generally make similar motions as they pursue their prey of choice - the Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), which is also a threatened species.5

When the "ship attacks" began in 2020, it is no surprise they took the media and Internet by storm - the Iberian orcas have previously been observed pursuing ships with fishing lines for tuna, but these behaviors that seemingly intend to harm boats has no clear motive. Theories sprawled out rapidly, and soon one pod matriarch would become the center of it. Dubbed White Gladis, she had been observed choosing to disrupt boats over protecting her calf which she was with. This led to the theory that White Gladis must have had an "aversive moment" while pregnant, where she may have been harmed by a boat or a net. This could have resulted in her "reactive" behavior around boats, which could then spread to more of the population.6

But let's step back for a moment. Although this explanation became very appealing online (LONG LIVE WHITE GLADIS!!! SINK THE YACHTS!!!), there can be more to these animals than what meets the eye.

First off, White Gladis herself - That's not actually her designated name. Due to the small nature of the Iberian subpopulation, GT Orca Atlantica (GTOA) documents individuals seen interacting with humans as GLADIS. The matriarchal orca in question is designated GLADIS BLANCA-GB, amongst a total of 15 individuals that are known with certainty to interact with boats. Of these, some have only been seen as observers, and not directly making physical contact with the ships.7

Although much of the media that reports on these interactions refer to them as "attacks" or aggressive behavior, the patterns the orcas display do not necessarily line up as such, so it is not correct to insist it's some kind of intentional cetacean violence. Some behaviors shown during interactions, such as producing bubbles underwater, are often associated with social and exploratory behaviors8 leading to a contrary theory that it may simply be a play behavior or "fad" in the population, an occurrence not too dissimilar with human social trends that has been historically recorded in orcas in many parts of the world.

BLANCA underwent a body report in 2020 that did not find any atypical injuries that could be attributed to a boat's rudder, while a juvenile, GLADIS NEGRA, was instead found with a large head wound first and then another behind the dorsal fin, but only after the interactions began8. These wounds have not been able to be identified with certainty, but regardless this removes some weight on the theory that BLANCA is out for revenge against mankind.

With over 230 interactions with physical contact recorded since 2020, the orcas often lose interest once the boat has stopped. Interactions typically last longer the more orcas are present as they have been seen taking turns to touch the boat9, again treating it more like an exploratory activity than an all-out attack.

This theory of self-induced behavior (for play or social reasons) is supported by the interest in boats by juvenile orcas especially, but the two adults initially involved could still have suffered an aversive moment (or had observed one).

Nevertheless, language is important when we talk about as complex (and endangered) animals as these. The idea of White Gladis's Revenge is interesting (and a little fun) but there's a need to avoid designating cetacean behavior as erratic and aggressive when there could always be more beneath the surface. BLANCA is just an animal, like all other orcas. They're remarkably intelligent, but they aren't monsters and still deserve the appropriate protection and respect, without any demonization.

If you want to learn more, GTOA has great resources about the Iberian subpopulation. You can check out project FriendSHIP: orca on their site.


1. Facebook: Post by Morskie Mile
2. Morskie Mile: Sun Odyssey 449 s/y Grazie Mamma
3. NPR: A pod of orcas has sunk a yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar
4. Marinetraffic: GRAZIE MAMMA
5. GT Orca Atlantica: The Iberian orca - What are orcas?
6. Livescience: White Gladis the orca may have been pregnant when she started attacking boats
7. GT Orca Atlantica: The Iberian orca - Catalogue
8. CEMMA & GTOA: 2021 Report
9. Orca Behavior Institute: Iberian Orcas with Monica Gonzalez ~ June 11, 2023

further reading:

Lisbon Dolphins: Orcas
Livescience: Orcas have sunk 3 boats in Europe and appear to be teaching others to do the same. But why?
Wiley: Killer whales of the Strait of Gibraltar, an endangered subpopulation showing a disruptive behavior
Phys.org: Why are killer whales going 'Moby-Dick' on yachts lately? Experts doubt it's revenge

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