Second boat sinks after ‘interaction’ with orcas
Four crew members have been rescued after their boat was reportedly attacked by orcas (1 November 22). The incident took place 25kms off the coast of Viana do Castelo.
This is the second incident which has ended with sinking this summer, says the Portugal Resident.
The crew, who were pronounced physically well and not in need of medical assistance, were picked up by another boat in the area before a rescue team from Viana do Castelo arrived.
MIN first reported on this phenomenon in September 2020 when it became clear that whales had targeted multiple boats travelling along the Strait of Gibraltar to Galicia. Sailor Victoria Morris described an incident that she said felt “totally orchestrated” after a group of nine whales surrounded a boat and rammed it for an hour.
Up until July 2022, interactions were limited to damage, says the Portugal Resident. The orcas’ ‘playing’ with rudders of sailing boats essentially left them stranded, but otherwise intact. ‘The worst that happened’ was a wait for rescue, and then an expensive repair bill.
But that changed in July as a family’s boat sank after a late-night ‘interaction’.
Reports at the time said that the five people on board managed to flee in a dinghy, having radioed ahead for help. A fishing boat, Festas André, was close by and went straight to the rescue.
This incident took place about six nautical miles from Sines. After the incident, the Portuguese Navy notified those who sighted the orcas to immediately turn off their engines.
“In the event of sighting these mammals, all sailors are advised to turn off the engine, in order to inhibit the rotation of the propeller, and immobilise the rudder door, thus demotivating these mammals to interact with the moving structures of the boats.”
A sailor from New Milton, Hampshire said he felt he was “caught up in a horror film” when a pod of 30 orca whales repeatedly attacked the yacht he was crewing on in the Gibralta Straits , back in July 2021.
After that, and other incidents, the Cruising Association (CA) and Groupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA) partnered (June 2022) to create an orca sighting reporting form. The aim is to investigate orcas interacting with vessels along the Iberian Peninsula. And, crucially, to note how many uneventful passages take place (currently 210 reported as opposed to 86 with interactions).
Orca interaction incident reports
The incident reports make harrowing reading.
“When we felt the first hit, we knew they were orcas, but we didn’t know how to react, so we decided to continue motoring as before,” says one, describing the incident which took place in late August 2022 (Report ID: Inter66). “For the first 20 or 25 minutes we continued moving and changed the direction, moving backward and drawing a sort of circle, but it didn’t work, they didn’t stop.
“At the beginning, the orcas started hitting the back (submerged) part of the boat, basically the rudder, but then they hit the hull and the keel. Since the orcas didn’t stop, we called “Salvamento marítimo”, they advised us to stop boat and engine and so we did.
“Despite of it the orcas didn’t stop and they even intensified the lunges for another 20 or 25 minutes. The interaction lasted 50 minutes in total. We were able to continue to Vigo, where the boat is now being repaired. They caused damage to the rudder, hull and some parts of the rudder gear. The crew were not fishing with a line from the stern.”
The report says in this incident there were two orcas, which were not detected before the interaction, because it was dark. The mammals’ behaviour was interpreted by the crew as a hunting behaviour. There was one orca on each side of the boat and they took turns to hit it.
In another (Report ID: Inter3), the author says “The two orcas were nearby a buoy and as soon as they saw us, they came like a bullet. We stopped the boat and started the engine on reverse at full power. After 10 minutes hitting the boat very strongly, they ran away without damaging the rudder. The two orcas (one of six meters and other of three-four metres) bumped the hull of the boat during 10 minutes and then swam away.”
New patterns of orca behaviour
The CA says that “Since 2020 there has been a new pattern of behaviour within a population of orcas that feeds on and follows the migration of tuna exiting the Mediterranean from the Strait of Gibraltar and heading West and North around the Iberian Peninsula over a period of several months.
“Beginning with a few specifically identified juveniles, the behaviour of bumping/ramming the hulls of small yachts and damaging rudders has expanded to other juveniles and adults. It has been stated that up to 15% of yachts experiencing and reporting this behaviour have had to be towed to port. At this stage the scientists do not know why a limited number of orcas are displaying this behaviour and legal means of deterring or minimising interactions are required.”
There have been several theories mooted as to the behaviour of the orcas (the small endangered Gibraltar Strait orca population is thought to be around 50 individuals), with experts initially linking the incidents to a juvenile pod – although data has not yet been presented to underpin this. There is a mix of opinion whether the orcas are playing or attacking.
But as one author of another interaction (Report ID: Inter86) reports, the behaviour of humans in the area is left wanting.
“Two orcas. One attacked the rudder six times. After five minutes they went away. After our event 10 orca spotters speedboats were chasing the orcas for the next hour! Absurd!”
Now the CA is looking to compare data received from interactions against the same data set reported by boats on passage through the affected area without an interaction.
It says it’s looking for reports from anyone on the following passages in 2022, including uneventful ones.
- June – between Cadiz and Tarifa;
- July and August – between Cabo Trafalgar and Tarifa;
- August – between Cabo Trafalgar and Tarifa and between Muros and Cabo Ortegal;
- September – between Sines and Figueira Da Foz;
- October – between Sines and Figueira Da Foz.
Advice for sailors who encounter orcas
The Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests says any boat visited by orcas should turn off its engines, as the movement of propellers etc., is believed to encourage the ‘curious behaviour of young orcas’.
Other advice collated by Portugal Resident includes:
- Stop the boat (take down the sails), switch off the autopilot, leave the wheel loose (if sea conditions and location allow it)
- Contact the authorities (either by calling 112 or radioing channel 16)
- Take your hands off the wheel and stay away from any part of the boat which could fall or turn sharply.
- Do not yell at the orca; do not let yourself be seen ‘excessively’; do not throw things at them; do not try to touch them with anything
- If you have a camera or smartphone try to take photographs, particularly of their dorsal fins as this will aid identification later
- Check the rudder turns and works only AFTER pressure or nudges to it have stopped
- If a fault is found, request a tow.
The CA says that it has recently added the reversing as a preventative measure because some reports have indicated that motoring in reverse appears to have deterred interactions, although this action is not yet proven.
“Whilst the Portuguese authorities have approved the action we are awaiting a response to consultations with the Spanish authorities who have previously advised that using an engine and propeller to reverse a boat towards an orca is forbidden in Spanish law.
“However, GTOA scientists believe that stopping the boat reduces the orcas’ interest and that engaging reverse gear slowly and steadily for a few minutes would allow these highly intelligent and agile cetaceans to break their routine and stay away from the propeller (2-3 knots has been stated to be effective). If the interaction persists then this measure might be abandoned, as GTOA state that the average timing of an interaction when not following the protocol is 30-40 minutes in any conditions.
“Reversing at high speed with erratic changes of direction in the presence of orcas is unlikely ever to be deemed legal by the relevant authorities, and and such vigorous action does not appear to be necessary to end an interaction.”
In this clip – from 2020 – whales are seen interacting with a Lagoon 450. The crew experienced two hours of harassment from the orcas.
“I don’t know if they were just playing with us . . . .it was quite an ordeal, and not one we’d wish to have again.”
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