Elaine Bunting looks into the so-called 'attacks' on yachts by groups of Orcas and tries to unravel why it has been consistently happening for the last few years

Late in November last year, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Farr 65 pilothouse cutter, Sanjula, was being sailed 10 miles west of Cape Finisterre in Spain when it was surrounded by orca whales. The collisions began immediately.

“A pod of seven to 10 orcas surrounded Sanjula and then began to barge into its rudder. This eventually broke a steering connecting rod. The engine was switched off and the boat lay hove-to while the emergency steering was rigged,” he reported. “After 10 minutes the orcas moved away, no longer finding a hove-to yacht interesting – but that is only an assumption. The boat sailed to Vigo for repairs.”

The incident was the most high profile yet of what has amounted to hundreds of interactions, or attacks, by killer whales off the coasts of Spain and Portugal since they were first reported nearly three years ago.

The incident involving Sanjula happened just a few weeks after the loss of a French Oceanis 393, Smousse, 14 miles west of Viana do Castelo. Orcas tore Smousse’s rudder by mouthing and shaking it, cracking the hull in the process. The four crew were forced to abandon to a liferaft, and were picked up by another yacht.

Close encounters between orcas and yachts were extremely rare occurrences until something very strange happened – in July 2020 the behaviour of a small sub-population of orcas off the coasts of Atlantic Spain and Portugal suddenly changed. They began to barge yachts seemingly aggressively, often causing serious damage to the boats’ rudders.

A towed dinghy could become a target for orca play. Photo: Jon Wright

Reports mounted up as the behaviour kept being repeated, and these incidents spread north, marking the orcas migratory route north along the Iberian peninsula to Galicia, where they feed on bluefin tuna and nurse their young. Whether these were play behaviours or attacks wasn’t clear but it involved repeated ramming of boats, and those who experienced them were terrified.

Delivery skipper Pete Green was delivering an Amel 52 from Gibraltar to the UK in 2020 when the yacht’s rudder spun uncontrollably from side to side.

“We knew there was a risk of meeting some orca so we stayed close to the Spanish coast, but we didn’t see them coming,” says Green, managing director of Halcyon Yachts. “The wheel was just suddenly spinning from left to right as they collided into the rudder.”

The crew immediately turned off all the electrics, shut down the engine, furled the sails and lay ahull. All the advice they’d seen said to sit passively in the water until the whales grew bored.

The orcas circled the Amel slowly for nearly two hours, so close at times that the crew were able to photograph and video the animals. The whole time, the orcas were bumping into the hull, the keel and hitting the rudder. “It seemed like an age before they finally left us in peace,” said Green. By the time the whales were gone, the rudder had been badly damaged.

It was not the first time Green had been on a yacht picked on by orcas. A year earlier, while close to A Coruña on the north-west corner of Spain, the Hallberg-Rassy 36 he was delivering to the UK was “rammed at least 15 times”. The yacht lost steering and had to be towed into port.

These encounters have become an established hazard along this coast. According to reports received and collated by the Cruising Association in conjunction with Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlántica, there were 102 interactions with orcas between January 2022 and January 2023, the majority of them off Cape Finisterre, west of Sines in Portugal, and in the Strait of Gibraltar. See the interactive map, which includes witness reports, at theca.org.uk/orcas/reports

Orcas chewed off this lump of rudder. Photo: Martyn & Zoe Barlow

Some of these resulted in damage, mainly to the rudder, and in a small number of cases it was serious. Some crews say they felt these were aggressive attacks, others viewed it as merely playful. The intent to barge the vessel and try to alter its course was, however, not in doubt.

A rogue group

Dr Ruth Esteban, a marine mammal researcher who works for the Madeira Whale Museum, has spent years studying the abundance, life history and social structure of orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar. The group of whales in question is a small one, she believes, just five pods comprising 28 individuals. It’s an endangered sub-population she knows well and she was both fascinated and alarmed by this bizarre evolution.

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“The orcas were more than used to being surrounded by vessels, sometimes hundreds of vessels at a time, but were never as far as we knew touching the vessel,” she says. “Then when 2020 arrived, after the worldwide lockdown, [this] disruptive behaviour was observed. They were reported interacting with boats and entering into contact with them, particularly sailing boats, resulting mainly in breaking the moving parts of their rudders.”

Since the incidents began, Dr Esteban has collected and reviewed videos taken on board some of the yachts that had been targeted and damaged, meticulously identifying each animal where possible and reviewing the whales’ behaviour. They were mainly juveniles, but there was at least one adult involved, the mother of one of the younger animals.

She observed that they were purposely targeting boats and trying to push them around by pushing or biting the rudder. “We could see the animals come close to the boat at the stern. Sometimes they showed up with intense bubbling. They would approach and start by observing moving parts before touching and pushing to control the movement of the boat.”

The whales mainly targeted sailing yachts under 15m, although some fishing boats, RIBs and motorboats were also attacked. In one case, they broke a yacht’s rudder in half. In another, a yacht crew endured repeated collisions for over an hour as the orcas repeatedly struck their rudder, breaking it and bending the stainless steel shaft by almost 90°. “The cost to repair was almost €21,000,” says Dr Esteban.

Orcas can live in all oceans of the world and are the second most widely distributed mammal on earth. Photo: Mike Korostelev/Getty

A group of working biologists and conservationists from organisations such as the Whale Museum of Madeira, La Rochelle university and the Portuguese Sociedade de Vida Selvagem was formed to investigate this behaviour.

Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlántica (orcaiberica.org) collates information on orca attacks, plots where they occur and promotes the conservation and management of the whales. It also offers advice aimed at mitigating damage to yachts or the animals themselves, the so-called orca protocol.

The behaviour, sporadic at first, has become an established set piece for the whales, and it has evolved. It has been going on now for three years, and there is no sign of this behaviour fading. It has become a natural behaviour for this population, and there is no evidence at all that they themselves are acting aggressively.

What can crews do?

If possible, avoid the areas of recent activity. The Spanish authorities set out two exclusion zones last year for vessels under 15m near A Coruña and on the approaches to Gibraltar on a stretch from Bolonia near Tarifa, to Cape Trafalgar. GT Orca Atlántica publishes a map on its website of current orca activity, valid for 24 hours, with the risk expressed in the form of traffic lights. This is based on the latest reports from boat crews and rescue services.

If targeted, GT Orca Atlántica advises stopping your yacht to make your vessel look unexciting and try to quell the whales’ prey drive. They suggest taking your hands off the wheel or disengaging the autopilot to allow the rudder to turn freely and advise crew not to shout at the animals, throw anything at them, ‘and do not let yourselves be seen excessively from overboard’.

Orcas circle a Sun Odyssey 40. Photo: Martyn & Zoe Barlow

But when faced with a pod of orcas and the prospect of hull or rudder damage, some crews have tried to scare them off. “We decided to go against protocol and bang metal tools against our metal railings and stanchions,” says a skipper who encountered the animals last summer.

“That seemed to deter them for about 10 minutes, then they returned. They carried on trying to get as close as possible to the stern again, so we started to play loud music on a portable speaker, banged pots and pans, and waved black and white striped towels off the stern. After a few minutes they left us alone, but the daylight was also dying by then and we can’t figure out if our deterrents worked or if they got bored.”

Some crews have kept bottles of diesel within reach in the cockpit just in case, ready to pour down the cockpit drains in case they are approached by orcas. The theory is that the orcas will be repelled by the mixture emerging underwater from the yacht.

Other crews have tried pouring sand into the water. Some even less humane methods have also been reported, such as crews letting off firecrackers or firing live rounds into the water. These do seem risky, and – aside from the issues of harming a protected marine species – no one can say whether any of these deterrents work.

A bubble curtain created by orcas circling beneath the surface

Three years on from the first reports of this animal behaviour, orca encounters off the Spanish and Portuguese coasts have become an accepted hazard. According to reports collected by GT Orca Atlántica, there were 239 cases of interactions with orcas between 2020 and 2021.

Social media and press reports have hugely amplified the issue. Considering the overall numbers of yachts on passage through these waters, thousands each summer, the percentage of boats affected is still small.

However, it seems unlikely this behaviour will extinct itself – its repetition proves the orcas find it self-rewarding. Are the orcas merely playing? Are they practising hunting behaviours? Are they reacting to stress or changes in food sources? Have pollutants affected them cognitively?

All these theories have been put forward, but no one knows. “Everyone is puzzled,” says Dr Esteban. “We don’t know what is going on and we do not know why they’re doing this. There have been a lot of hypotheses but none of them is based on clear evidence.”

From a yachtsman’s point of view, the reasons really don’t matter. The orcas’ behaviour has evolved, and will presumably continue until it serves no purpose. In the meantime, reported encounters will allow researchers to build up a more detailed picture of the areas of activity, types of boats targeted and successful deterrents, if any. Until then, many cruisers believe the only thing to do is to coast-hop Spain and Portugal while monitoring areas where the orca pods are reported to be hunting.

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