Killer whales attack boats off Europe. Could same thing happen in Florida?

It's "Jaws" with a twist. Or is it?

A pod of orcas has gained worldwide attention after sinking a boat in an attack that lasted 45 minutes, Live Science reported.

The Oct. 31 incident is the fourth time in two years orcas have been blamed for sinking ships in southwestern Europe.

While orcas, also known as killer whales, are most commonly found in colder waters, they have been spotted in and around Florida. So could what happened across the Atlantic happen here?

What happened to the yacht attacked by orcas off Morocco?

An orca pod was captured attacking a boat off the coast of Morocco.
An orca pod was captured attacking a boat off the coast of Morocco.

According to a translated Facebook post made by Polish cruise company Morskie Mile, owner of the sunken boat, a mid-size sailing yacht was attacked by a pod of orcas off the coast of Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar Oct. 31.

The orcas repeatedly hit the yacht's rudder, causing major damage and causing the boat to take on water. All passengers were safely evacuated before the boat sank.

This wasn't first attack by orcas off the Iberian Peninsula

Incidents involving orcas off the Iberian coast jumped from 52 in 2020 to more than 200 in 2022, though no human injuries or deaths have been reported,  according to Orca research group GTOA.

Experts first documented juvenile Iberian killer whales  — a "unique subpopulation of killer whales that lives in the northeast Atlantic" — touching, pushing, and even turning vessels, including some fishing and inflatable boats, in 2020, GTOA said.

Experts think the rest of the population could be mimicking the behavior.

Why are the killer whales attacking boats?

Andrew Trites, professor and director of Marine Mammal Research at the University of British Columbia, told CBS News there are two main theories about the attacks, but, for now, it remains to be an “unprecedented” mystery.

The first theory is that orcas are engaging in a type of whale "play" or "sport,” Trites said.

The second theory is that orcas’ years of dealing with traumatic boating injuries have resulted in a "negative experience.”

Are there orcas in Florida waters?

Killer whales have been seen off Florida, including at least three times this year.

In July, a Florida fisherman captured a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience on video when he and some friends encountered a pod of orcas off the Florida Keys.

The orcas were about 18 to 20 miles offshore in about 1,700 feet of water and had just killed something when a group of fishermen spotted them.

In January, an orca beached itself and died off Flagler County. The whale had "signs of various illnesses," officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries division said at the time.

The whale was an adult female at least 21 feet long and weighed approximately 5,000 pounds.

It was the first killer whale stranding recorded in the southeastern United States, according to Erin Fougeres, Marine Mammal Stranding Program administrator for NOAA's Southeast region.

In September, a group of fishermen spotted a pod of orcas about 100 miles east of Fort Pierce.

Florida, of course, is best known for its orcas kept in captivity which have brought delight, horror and backlash from activists for decades. Attractions are phasing out their killer whales in response to public opinion.

Killer whales normally found in colder waters

Range of orcas, commonly known as killer whales, around the world.
Range of orcas, commonly known as killer whales, around the world.

Orcas are most commonly found in colder waters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

However, they have been spotted all over the world, even in tropical and subtropical waters — including the Gulf of Mexico and off Florida's eastern coast.

It's not uncommon to see orcas swimming around the Bahamas as they move from one place to another, according to Jim Moir, chair of the Marine Resources Council.

In rare instances, the whales will follow migrating fish down into warmer areas such as Florida, Hawaii, Australia, the Galapagos Islands, the Bahamas, and the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a small Western North Atlantic stock of killer whales, as well as a stock in the Gulf of Mexico with around 267 individuals, Fougeres said.

Do orcas attack humans?

While orcas may deserve their fearsome reputation when it comes to other marine animals, they almost never attack humans in the wild, according to LiveScience.

"I don’t think a killer whale would ever hunt a human," said Erich Hoyt, a researcher at Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

"They are fussy eaters, really conservative in terms of whatever they learned from their mothers and from their pod about what constitutes food."

A killer whale did bite a surfer off California in 1972, but the orca quickly let go, according to the Lodi News-Sentinel. After interviewing the surfer, Hoyt said the whale may have mistaken the surfer as a seal.

Are killer whales endangered?

It is estimated that there are around 50,000 killer whales globally, according to NOAA Fisheries

All killer whale populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Only two populations receive additional special protections under federal law:

  • Southern Resident Distinct Population Segment, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, which range from central California to southeast Alaska.

  • AT1 Transient stock, designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and found in the eastern North Pacific. Their numbers have dropped from 22 to 7 whales since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Quick facts about orcas

  • Weight: up to 11 tons

  • Length: Up to 32 feet

  • Lifespan: 30 to 90 years

  • Threats: Chemical contaminants; Disturbance from vessel traffic and noise; entanglement in fishing gear; food limitations; oil spills.

  • What they eat: Diet is primarily determined by the culture — learned hunting tactics — of each type. They are considered an apex predator.

How to report a stranded or injured marine animal

If you see a sick, injured, stranded, or dead marine mammal or sea turtle, contact the FWC at 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922) or the Florida Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network at 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922).

On an iPhone, you can use the  Dolphin and Whale 911 app to report a stranded marine mammal.

NOAA recommends staying at least 150 feet away from a stranded marine mammal or sea turtle.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Orca attacks yacht. Could Florida killer whales sink boats?