As orca attacks and incidents continue along the Atlantic coast Helen Fretter speaks to Dr Ruth Esteban who is investigating the behaviour
The first signs that something odd was taking place came in July 2020. After the strangest start to a summer any of us can remember, just as Europe began to open up to sailing once again, there were reports from Gibraltar and the Spanish Atlantic coast apparently of orca attacks on yachts.
One of the earliest incidents involved a Hallberg-Rassy 36, which was being sailed to southern Spain by a delivery crew from Halcyon Yachts. “Our crew had just set off from A Coruña and were a couple of miles offshore when the crew suddenly felt the wheel being ripped out of their hands,” Peter Green of Halcyon Yachts explained.
The yacht was later taken under tow, but the impacts from the orcas continued, snapping the tow rope. When the yacht was lifted ashore there were clear bite marks on the hull and the rudder was split in two.
Although such incidents sound almost unbelievable, a clear pattern soon began to emerge. Spanish naval yacht, Mirfak, lost part of its rudder after an apparent orca attack where it appeared they bit at the stern of the yacht – which the crew captured on video. Within six months, there had been around 40 such incidents reported.
This summer, the situation escalated. Dr Ruth Esteban, a marine scientist who has spent six years observing the Spanish orca population and is now investigating the orcas’ behaviour with the Atlantic Orca Working Group, says that from June to mid-July 2021 alone there were 53 reported incidents.
Martin Evans was on board another Hallberg-Rassy, a 49 called Kismet, also being delivered by a Halcyon Yachts crew. The crew were some 50 miles west of Gibraltar when they encountered a large group of orcas in June this year.
“I was quite aware of the orca interactions beforehand but I thought we kind of got through the worst area of it by the time we had ours.
“There are two little pots of shallow water around Cadiz heading towards Tarifa. I was on my watch and the boat was on autopilot. I turned around to see the steering of the boat flying left, right, left, right, crashing on its binnacle. I turned the pilot to manual, and then either side of me there were orcas everywhere.”
Martin Evans estimates that there were around a dozen or more whales around their yacht, ranging from small juveniles to full size adults. “There was constant whale activity, port and starboard side. Wherever we looked there was one coming in.”
“I think we were hit on the rudder 100 or 200 times. It was consistent. They were around for a solid hour. We put sails down as per the guidance, and eventually they did go away.
“But they were gone for 20 minutes, then they came back. We could see them breaking the surface in the distance and making a beeline straight for the rudder. They were very focussed in their task.”
At one point Evans could see an orca with a chunk of the rudder’s foam in its mouth. After another 40 minutes, the orcas finally swam away.
What nobody knows is why the orcas started behaving this way, or why the apparent orca attacks are becoming more frequent. Theories abound – some have suggested that a member of the family group was injured by a boat and the whales are seeking revenge.
Dr Esteban does not join the speculation. “We didn’t know at the beginning and we still don’t know now why it is happening. And I don’t know if we will ever know.”
Orca attacks: ringleaders
Esteban says they have identified the whales they believe are involved. “At the moment it is two groups that belong to two different families. But it’s not the whole family that is interacting.
“In one group it’s only juveniles and in the other one is mainly juveniles and even calves. There is also an adult with them, that can be seen close to the boat.”
Some have observed that the whales appear to be ‘belly up’ in the videos, suggesting that they are playing, rather than being aggressive. “That is not really proof,” says Esteban. “When they are belly-up it is more like they are being curious because it means that they are checking something with their heads in that direction. So they are intentionally looking for something.”
Having studied the local orca population for many years, Esteban knows their usual behaviour patterns. There are believed to be around 60 whales, their territory extending some 900 miles from the mouth of the Mediterranean, up the coast of Portugal, and into Biscay, where they hug the northern coast of Spain, often following tuna shoals.
“Normally in spring time close to Barbate, near the entrance to the [Gibraltar] Straits, there are shallow waters and that is where we see the whales hunting tuna. What they do is chase the tuna for about 30 minutes until the tuna are exhausted, and this is when the whales can catch them,” she explains.
“Then in summer time we normally see them just in the middle of the Strait of Gibraltar, interacting with the fishing fleet.
“Bluefin tuna fishing has been happening there for quite a long time, on long lines with hooks, and what they do is pull along the line until they have it close to the surface, then when the tuna gets close to the surface the killer whales come to the surface and take it.”
The fishing fleet is made up of larger vessels from Spain, and smaller ones from Morocco. “Sometimes when we were counting the number of boats around the animals there were hundreds, so they are used to being surrounded by boats and manoeuvring among them, but never touching the boats, until last year,” explains Esteban.
Most concerning is the fact that the whales’ interactions with vessels appear to be not only more frequent, but also more sustained and involving a widening range of vessels.
“Last year it was mostly small sailing vessels, but this year they are going for larger sailing vessels and even catamarans, destroying both rudders. They also have been reported to go for fishing vessels and small RIBs, in southern Portugal, where the whale watching boats are mainly RIBs.
“They do go for them, but because there is no rudder, they just push the propellers and even push from the bottom of the boat. But it is kind of worrying because it looks like their behaviour is evolving.”
More positively, when I spoke to Esteban at the end of July, there had been no reported incidents for two weeks. “The last interaction that we have reported is from 14 July in the Strait, but people have been reporting sightings of animals in Portugal and even in Galicia, so it looks like they are already moving.”
[Edit: Since this article was published, the interactions resumed with reported incidents throughout August and early September, see www.orcaiberica.org/last-interactions for latest updates and maps of encounters. New navigation limits have also been imposed from 8-22 September]
Esteban and the Atlantic Orca Working Group ask any sailors who encounter the orcas to notify them to help them track the whales’ movement. They also request sailors send any photos or video footage of incidents to help identify which whales are involved – each orca has a uniquely shaped pale grey patch behind their dorsal fin, akin to a ‘fingerprint’, which can be used to identify the whales from the surface.
Otherwise the official advice is to stop the yacht, take down the sails and turn off the autopilot as well as the engine. Sailors are advised not to hold onto the helm, as it can suddenly spin out of control as the whales collide with the steering gear. You are also advised not to shout at or attempt to touch the whales, or get close to them at the edge of the boat, but to discreetly record them.
Alerting the authorities
David Smith was a delivery skipper of a brand new Lagoon 45 which was attacked. He advises yachts transiting the area to think carefully about their route, and their onboard communications in case they encounter orcas.
“My biggest concern was that they’d damage the rudder stock – and taking to the liferaft didn’t seem like an option. I’ve never been so glad to have a satellite phone on board, so I was able to phone Falmouth Coastguard and say, ‘This isn’t a Mayday or even a Pan Pan, but it could get serious very quickly’. They contacted the Portuguese Coastguard who were alert to the fact there could be a problem.
“We were 25 miles offshore – normally around the Portuguese coast you tend to stick a bit out to sea, to get away from the lobster pots and fishing boats. Between the traffic separation zone and the shore there’s quite a nice corridor, but it’s quite a lonely place. I couldn’t see anything on AIS and we were out of VHF range for the Coastguard, and I was just thinking ‘What on earth do we do?’”
Smith has also bought a satellite communication device so he can send a text or email to a key contact if he needs to raise the alarm while sailing the area again in future.
“I’m bringing a boat back from southern Portugal to Plymouth, and I’ve decided to hug the shore. Ordinarily we’d be well out to sea, but until this stops I want to play it safe,” Smith adds.
Some skippers have opted to simply avoid the area. Martin Evans, who has a small yacht of his own in Greece, intends to skip the Strait entirely by a combination of sailing through France’s canals and road trailing back to the UK.
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