Killer Whales, or Orcas, are the largest members of the oceanic dolphin family.
Highly intelligent social mammals, they hunt in large pods and are known for organised attacks on marine animals.
Orca attacks on yachts
Until recently they have rarely posed a threat to human life. However over the last 18 months, a spate of Orca attacks on sailboats off the Spanish and Portuguese coast, has left scientists puzzled.
The strange behaviour was first reported in July 2020, when a pod of nine Orcas circled a 46ft. sailing vessel near the Straits of Gibraltar. At first the crew were happy to see the usual curious and social mammals. However the situation quickly changed when they started hitting the keel and the side of the boat, the attack lasting for nearly an hour. The boat suffered damage to the rudder and had to be towed to a nearby port for repairs.
Between July and September 2020 there were over 30 similar Orca attacks, often causing significant damage to vessel rudders. The Spanish coastguard subsequently established an exclusion zone for sailing vessels of less than 50ft. between Ferrol and the Estaca de Bares Cape. However the attacks continued in to 2021 from as far north as Galicia, to the Straits of Gibraltar in the south. In July 2021 an astonishing total of 53 attacks were reported.
What is causing the Orca attacks on yachts?
So why is this happening? There have been many theories on the reasons for the attacks, including Orcas associating boats with a lack of food sources in the area. The most popular theory however, is that one member of an Orca pod was fatally injured by a vessel at some point, resulting in these sustained attacks – not as revenge but rather as a precautionary move to safeguard other Orcas nearby.
As the Orca attacks have continued, individuals have now been identified by their markings. Two pods appear to be the main aggressors, although not the whole family are reacting the same way. In one pod it seems to be only the juveniles and in the other it ranges from adults right through to the calves.
These two pods are believed consist of around 60 whales and their territory extends some 900 miles from the mouth of the Mediterranean, including the coast of Portugal, Spain and into Biscay.
They tend to follow their main food source tuna; in the Spring by the entrance to the Gibraltar Straits, in the summer in the Gibraltar Straits, and then moving north as the year goes on, eventually hugging the north coast of Spain into Biscay.
The most concerning part is that Orca attacks are becoming more sustained and appear to be evolving. Firstly they targeted small sailing boats, but in time they progressed to larger vessels, fishing boats and even small RIBS, where due to the lack of rudders, which seems to be the target of most attacks, they have gone for propellers and hitting vessels from underneath.
Damage to a yachts rudder after an Orca Attack
The picture below shows the rudder damage after an Orca attack off the coast of Portugal in November 2021, the yacht involved in this attack had to be towed into Cascais by the coastguard.
What to do in an Orca Attack
In September 2021 an Oceantrax delivery crew were enroute to Gibraltar on board an OVNI 445, when they came under attack from juvenile Orcas, approximately six miles off Lisbon.
On the day the conditions were good, light winds, calm sea and good weather. The first alert the crew had was when there was a slight jolt from the vessel. A quick scan of the sea showed no debris or lobster pots. A second jolt occurred 30 seconds later, followed by the wheel moving violently and the auto helm disengaging. One member of the crew tried to correct the wheel only to find it pulled out of their hands.
The crew looked over the stern to see if there was any debris, wrapped around the rudders. It was at this point they spotted two juvenile Orcas.
They immediately cut the engine and turned off all electronic instruments, as it had been reported that sonar may be a cause of the attacks.
In this instance the Orcas targeted the vessel for approximately 15 minutes, with sustained attacks on the rudders and fast sweeps under the yacht nudging the keel.
Luckily the OVNI had aluminium rudders so no serious damage was sustained and the Orcas soon lost interest. However on the same day two other vessels nearby were also subject of Orca attacks, one sustaining serious rudder damage resulting in a tow to shore, and a crew member was injured on the other.
Reporting an Orca Attack
Atlantic Orca also track all the locations of attacks month by month and the positions shown here
For now there seems to be no sure way to avoid attacks, as a wide range of vessels seem to be targeted and attacks continue to occur during both day and night.
The best advice we can offer is:
- In the event of an attack cut your engines and turn off all electronic instruments
- Make sure you have a working communications system on board at all times, so you can call for help in the event of an attack, lose a rudder or suffer worse damage to your boat.
- Track known pod positions on the Atlantic Orca website and the Safety at Sea Group.