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Encounters with orcas & how to protect your boat

Andy Pag explores why orcas have been damaging yachts off Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar, and how to protect your boat

Orcas interacting with a yacht
There were 52 reported orca incidents between June 2020 and March 2021. Credit: David Smith

Being chased, bumped and gnarled at by a pod of orcas was ‘a mix of horror and love,’ says Yara Tibirica who encountered the animals while sailing her 35ft live-aboard catamaran, Slughunter.

‘It’s a rare privilege to see such mighty and majestic orcas in the wild but when they are threatening your home the sight is double-edged.’

Yara and her husband Jon Wright had decided to stay 1.5 miles offshore on their passage from Cadiz to Gibraltar in July this year, after reading the trickle of information on social media about encounters with this semi-resident pod in the Strait of Gibraltar.

The crew of Slughunter watched as an orca appeared to play with their dinghy before targeting the boat's rudders. Credit: Jon and Yara Wright

The crew of Slughunter watched as an orca appeared to play with their dinghy before targeting the boat’s rudders. Credit: Jon and Yara Wright

Since the start of the year, orcas have been nudging boats to bring them to a halt, and gnawing at their rudders, leaving sailors shaken and stranded, in many cases relying on salvage tows to get them back to shore.

Commonly known as ‘killer whales’, orca are not, in fact, whales, but the largest member of the dolphin family.

Orcinus orca can live to 80 years old, growing up to 9.75m (32ft) and weighing up to six tonnes.

In the eight months between June 2020 and March 2021,  there were 52 reported encounters around the Iberian coast, but there were more than 27 in July of this year alone in the Gibraltar Strait.

Initially smaller monohulls were targeted, but now even larger 50ft catamarans have reported approaches.

Depth sounders on or off, under sail or motor, day or night, the hull colour – it has not yet been possible to pin down a common factor.

Searching for a cause

Scientists are hesitant about being drawn on a motivation for the orcas’ behaviour.

Dr Ruth Esteban, of the Madeira Whale Museum has studied pods in the region, and has volunteered time to try to collate details of the encounters from skippers.

‘No one knows why they’re doing it,’ she explains. ‘We’re trying to figure it out and compiling information, but no one is actually doing any proper research on it. We need more data.’

Dr Ruth Estaban is studying the orcas behaviour to try and find a cause, here seen with a tagging device

Dr Ruth Estaban is studying the orcas behaviour to try and find a cause, here seen with a tagging device

Dr Esteban has applied for funding that would allow her to go to the area, speak with affected skippers, and see the behaviour first hand, but the research funding application is a slow process.

The crew of Slughunter consider themselves lucky.

They were towing their dinghy on a 15m line and the orcas seemed more interested in nudging it, diverting attention away from the rudders and allowing Yara and Jon to motor to the shallows.

After a nerve-wracking 30-minute chase they got to just 10m of depth and the pod left.

‘We were able to remove the rudder at anchor and get the shaft straightened and repaired the small fibreglass damage ourselves,’ Yara explained.

In the end repairs only cost them €150, but others have been less fortunate.

Learnt behaviour

In February the yacht Anyway, a sturdy Alpa 1150, had its rudder completely destroyed.

The private salvage tow took three hours to reach them and cost them almost €2,500.

Commercial delivery skipper Brandon Bibb was on board and said there were smaller orcas watching the older ones bite at the rudder.

Brandon Bibb doesn't believe the behaviour of the orcas is intentionally aggressive

Brandon Bibb doesn’t believe the behaviour of the orcas is intentionally aggressive

‘If the younger ones are learning this behaviour, that’s terrifying’; he says.

‘Sailing the Strait of Gibraltar is already Russian roulette. Imagine if they hit a saildrive and break the seals, or if a rudder tube cracks, and they learn how to sink boats.’

The long-term consequences and escalation are concerns shared by Dr Esteban.

‘It’s a worry because this is how they learn. They mimic behaviours, and the behaviour is evolving so fast.’

Brandon Bibb looked on as orcas attacked the rudder of the yacht he was delivering. Credit: Brandon Bibb

Brandon Bibb looked on as orcas attacked the rudder of the yacht he was delivering. Credit: Brandon Bibb

Despite their nickname, ‘killer whales’ have never killed a person in the wild.

After the quiet seas with few vessels moving during the Covid lockdown, this year Spanish fishermen have had a bumper tuna season.

Rumours circulate locally that orcas have learned to jump in and out of static nets to feed on the tuna catch.

A few fishing boats have also reported being targeted in a similar way to the yachts.

Both Yara Tibirica and Brandon Bibb are convinced the behaviour was playful and not intentionally aggressive.

Jon Wright and his wife, Yara, has a very close encounter when sailing their catamaran from Cadiz to Gibraltar, damaging their rudder stock. Credit: Jon Wright

Jon Wright and his wife, Yara, has a very close encounter when sailing their catamaran from Cadiz to Gibraltar, damaging their rudder stock. Credit: Jon Wright

Video of other encounters show the orcas swimming on their backs, a behaviour not associated with aggression.

Bibb is careful to use the term ‘interaction’ and not ‘attack’.

‘I don’t want to spread hate against an animal for doing its natural behaviour,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure if this behaviour is natural, but don’t want to spark the masses to do something stupid.’

Yara has also defended the whales’ behaviour, and is worried about the impact this fear amongst sailors might generate.

‘I am in the one imposing on their habitat and I believe we humans have done enough to destroy their habitat so I totally respect them and wish nothing bad ever happens to them,’ she said.

Alternative theories on why orcas are interacting with yachts

Predators rarely expend calories for reasons other than hunting or mating.

Play is often designed to hone hunting skills and Yara points out that yachts travel at similar speeds to tuna.

One theory is that this is play which develops fishing skills. There are alternative theories too, however.

Dr Victoria Todd of Ocean Science Consulting, an expert in sea life acoustics, suspects the noisy shipping channel is a more plausible explanation.

The damage to the rudder of the Beneteau First 47.7, Promise 3, which belongs to Graeme and Moira Walker who encountered orcas off Finisere on 22 September. They endured 45 minutes of the mammals pushing and holding onto the boat before leaving when the couple switched their engine off. Credit: Graeme Walker

The damage to the rudder of the Beneteau First 47.7, Promise 3, which belongs to Graeme and Moira Walker who encountered orcas off Finisere on 22 September 2020. They endured 45 minutes of the mammals pushing and holding onto the boat before leaving when the couple switched their engine off. Credit: Graeme Walker

‘Orcas likely do play when they have a full stomach and aren’t stressed, but if they were teaching their young to hunt, they’d be doing it with live prey, not with inanimate rudders,’ she said.

‘Given the high levels of anthropogenic noise in the Strait of Gibraltar, [the encounters] could be related to stress.’

These orcas hunt with sonar and the background noise makes it harder for them to hear the echo, or each other’s vocalisations.

‘They may also be associating vessels as competing for fish; they can be injured by fishing lines, and they’re also under increasing pressure from ship strikes; acoustically it’s difficult for them to detect oncoming sailing vessels. It’s important not to anthropomorphise, but they could just be pissed off,’ she said.

Continues below…

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Perhaps sailing boats have struck orcas previously, and this is why they’re being targeted.

Herminio, who runs a nautical workshop in Lisbon and has skippered yacht deliveries along the Atlantic coast and into the Med, is adamant the behaviour is aggressive.

‘They are not playing. I lived in Madeira for 15 years and worked on whale watching boats there. I had the chance to be near them. I can tell when they are being curious, or when they’re scared, and attacking, and it’s different. The speed they came to the boat and immediately went to the rudders – it wasn’t playing. It was meant to be aggressive,’ he says.

Avoiding encounters with orcas

Herminio had an encounter while delivering a 50ft Fountaine Pajot for a client from Lisbon to the Balearics.

The advice issued by the authorities is to stop the boat and wait for the orcas to get bored.

Typically after 30-60 minutes they leave, but by then the boat can be rudderless and incapacitated.

Instead Mr Herminio threw the engines in reverse, creating froth that sent the orcas temporarily away from the rudders and gave him time to drop the sails and keep the boat moving backwards.

Going astern, the spinning props were preventing access to the rudders.

Marc Herminio employed a reverse prop technique to repel the orcas from the boat's rudders. Credit: Marc Herminio

Marc Herminio employed a reverse prop technique to repel the orcas from the boat’s rudders. Credit: Marc Herminio

‘For half an hour we moved backwards at 2-3kts, with the orcas following off the bow. They didn’t attack the keels, and eventually they left.”

It’s a technique that Dr Estaban is cautious about.

‘We’ve seen some people reporting this [evasion technique] but it could cause injury to the animals. The main problem with any new strategy is it can work for a while, but then the animals figure it out.’

Dr Estaban’s work has faced the criticism from some sailors that her focus is on protecting the orcas rather than preventing damage to yachts.

Orcas are the biggest mammal in the dolphin family. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Orcas are the biggest mammal in the dolphin family. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

While her research is voluntary and has little funding, she said, ‘We are researchers working at sea, but we’re kind of sailors too. We put the location of the encounters on the website [www.orcaiberica.org]. We don’t do this for the orcas, we do it for the sailors.’

Yara Tibirica would like to see more of the collected information being shared on the site, which currently shows the location and date of reported encounters.

Co-skippers Fionna and Iain Lewis sailed their Westerly Oceanlord 41 Ruffian through ‘Orca Alley’ without incident, but the 60-mile trip from Gibraltar to Cadiz was highly stressful.

‘The whole sail felt threatening; every white cap was an orca tail, every lobster pot was something that would attract them,’ recalled Iain.

Rounding Cape Trafalgar they smelled cetacean breath in the air, and immediately altered course for the shallows.

Mitigating risk

‘Sailing is all about managing risk,’ said Iain. ‘You have the right sail in case there’s a storm. You have radar in case there’s ice or fog. For me, what makes this such a scary situation is that I can’t mitigate the risk.’

The couple chose to buddy-boat with others, reasoning that in a group of boats the odds of being singled out might be reduced.

‘It’s impossible to quantify the risk,’ added Fiona Lewis. ‘We have an idea how many boats are attacked, but we don’t know how many sail through unharmed.’

Interactions between fishermen and orcas, and competition for food have been cited as possible reasons for the increasing encounters. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Interactions between fishermen and orcas, and competition for food have been cited as possible reasons for the increasing encounters. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Orca-related insurance claims are not having a huge impact on insurance claims departments.

Of the two insurers contacted, one was not aware of the issue, while the other had received some claims and said they were monitoring the situation.

Nigel Hawkes of Topsail Insurance was confident that most yacht policies are sufficient to cover such incidents.

But escalating claims might lead to increased premiums or high-risk zones being excluded from standard policies.

Both would be costly for sailors entering or exiting the Med, but pressure from insurers might also encourage the development of more pro-active steps.

Exclusion zone

After over a year of reported incidents, in August the Spanish Ministry of Transport sketched out an exclusion zone for boats under 15m length between Bolonia and Cape Trafalgar.

The zone encourages boats to sail close to the shore.

‘The exclusion zone covers where most of the interactions have happened,’ said Dr Estaban. ‘If all the boats move to another area, then we may see the interactions move, and it may be more dangerous close to the coast. The exclusion zone is a good first step, and it’s established contact with authorities. Sadly they cannot make fast decisions. It has to go through a lot of ministries and secretariats. It will take time to change the size or move.’

Within days of being established, encounters were being reported outside the zone.

A chart showing the Orca encounters on yachts for 2020-2021

Credit: Maxine Heath

One sceptical Facebook user asked, ‘Have the orcas been informed?’

The exclusion zone is due for regular review.

The Spanish Ministry of Transport confirmed it has not assigned any extra budget for dealing with these incidents but told YM, ‘Recreational sailors have praised the work of the Maritime Rescue Services, the correctness of the security protocol [advising sailors what to do] in the event of an encounter with orcas, and the information provided to sailors.’

But many sailors have expressed frustration at the lack of action to ensure safety at sea.

Andy Pagg is a former investigative journalist. He and his partner have lived aboard their 1998 Lagoon for a year and are slowly heading from Greece to the Caribbean

Andy Pagg is a former investigative journalist. He and his partner have lived aboard their 1998 Lagoon for a year and are slowly heading from Greece to the Caribbean

There have been calls on social media for culling the pod and other more aggressive defence methods, but all whales and cetaceans, including orcas, are protected from ‘deliberate disturbance, capture or killing within EU waters’ by law.

The framing of these encounters as a conflict between boat safety and wildlife conservation is an oversimplification.

The two conflicting challenges are inexorably intertwined.

Finding a way to mitigate the encounters would benefit the safety of sailors and remove the developing animosity towards the orcas.

But until there is funding for research and a more agile, resourced response from the authorities, it’s certain more boats will be damaged, and the risk of attack may become a permanent feature of passages through the Strait.

Proposed solutions: Pros & cons

  • Trackers: Tracking the disruptive pod is difficult and the trackers need to be renewed regularly. It’s costly and might not be very helpful as orcas can travel at up to 30 knots, covering large distances quickly.
  • Convoys: Escorted convoys could help boats through the most risky section, but would offer little actual defence in an encounter except offering safety in numbers.
  • Sonar: Acoustic Deterrent Devices (ADDs), also known as pingers, are used in fishing operations to warn off dolphins and porpoises from nets they might get tangled in. But the noise only becomes a deterrent once the animals learn to associate it with a risk, and the frequencies need to be tuned to the animal you want to ward away. Acoustic Harassment Devices (AHDs)
    are used in Oil & Gas and Renewable industries to repel animals, but as well as questions over their effectiveness, cost and practicality, AHDs and ADDs need to be licensed to be used legally.
  • Shallows: Statistically there have been no attacks in the shallows, but this might be because few boats have hugged the coast while transiting the Strait. As more boats stick to 10m depths time will tell if this strategy works or not. Orcas are able to manoeuvre in shallow water and are known to chase prey into shallows, but it is a less clear acoustic environment.
  • Slapping the water: Slapping the water with a fin is thought to be a signal of irritation between some whale species, says Dr Todd. ‘A flat smack on the water with a large paddle could give them a signal to stop,’ though she points out this is untested, and shouldn’t be tried where there’s a risk of falling overboard or hitting an animal.
  • Fending off: ‘Deliberate disturbance’ is illegal, but might be arguable as justified if there is immediate risk to life of those on board.
  • Carry spares: Ensure you have the necessary tools for emergency steering, or even rudder replacement, if you lose your steering. A salvage tow is expensive.

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