Update on the sailboat-loving Orcas

by Jörn Selling

Understandably, there is no end to the amount of interest, and we receive many enquiries from journalists and documentary filmmakers.

They would love to know why the Orcas bump into sailboats, but also other small boats. All scientists worldwide would like to know as well. Previous speculations on this subject from us can be found here and here.

From the perspective of us humans, there would be enough reasons for the killer whales to be stressed: we have polluted their habitat with noise, we have overfished their most important food source in the Strait of Gibraltar, the tuna, and banned drift nets still pose a danger to them and especially to their calves. To make matters worse, for some years now there has been a tuna fisherman in Tarifa who uses electric shocks to stun tuna that are fighting for their lives on fishing hooks; this too is a danger to the local Orcas, who snatch the fish off the lines when they get the chance.

In 2020, shortly after the extensive two-month Corona lockdown with closed harbours and heavenly calm for the killer whales, the first three young females began their new hobby. For whatever reason they developed a taste for nibbling and ramming the rudders of the targeted boats, more killer whales joined them. It seems to have become a popular game for them. They do not target humans, it is quite certain that even if a crew member were to go overboard, there would be nothing to fear from the whales.

There are only about 50 killer whales and not all of them take part in the prank. Those who have a taste for it are unlikely to be discouraged, just as we are reluctant to give up what we enjoy. Instead of conjuring up the devil and proposing draconian measures to eliminate it, as some social networks do, we should learn to live with it and best avoid the killer whales.

The plan that is being pursued here, to shoot 6 of them with transmitters, meets with a divided response. We don't think much of it because it is an invasive measure. Moreover, the maps for sailors based on the recorded position data are not updated weekly, as originally assured as justification.

Also, the last interaction on 17.08.2023 could not be prevented with the help of the above-mentioned maps, where the sailors shot at the killer whales. Good thing whale watchers were there and filmed it, now hopefully the sailors will get their due. As a result, the scientific community has decided to send an open letter to the media.

A non-invasive and, in our opinion, better option is to register all interactions recorded so far, as the Orca Atlántica working group does. On their page you can find a QR code to an APP for your smartphone, where you can see the latest interactions. This keeps sailors up to date on where the Orcas are currently "playing", and there are also behavioural suggestions for boats. It would be interesting to have sea maps in which all interactions are summarised as hotspots, possibly according to season. This way, sailors could decide whether they want to/can avoid them.

The working group has suggested to the ministry in Madrid that the Orcas could be chased away using the sounds of Pilot Whales. In the Strait of Gibraltar, it sometimes happens that the Orcas are pursued by Pilot Whales. Unfortunately, the responsible ministry did not react to this, the project with the transmitter shootings got the go-ahead. It is probably easier to annoy a few Orcas than to keep the necessary hardware available on many sailboats.

One possible adaptation strategy for sailors who want to be in Orca waters regularly would be to modify the rudder system so that the rudder blade can be swung up. An alternative would be to detach the blade from the steering mechanism so that it swings freely, and the Orcas could take this as a success and let go of it.

Metal rods sticking out into the water, which are "worked" with small hammers to make sounds, are used in Canada to scare off killer whales.

This summer we were able to identify a total of 20 killer whales from 05.07 to 20.08, 10 of which like to approach boats. Although there were sailors in the Strait of Gibraltar every day, there has only been physical contact twice in this period, one we described above.

If sailors find themselves in the position of being "inspected" by killer whales off the Iberian Peninsula, as they also do under our boat (though without bumping into us), we recommend holding the GoPro in the water, if available, and telling the grandchildren about it. Admittedly, they are more relaxed to watch when they are not nibbling on the oar. But even so, it's an experience, sometimes costly, but still breathtaking and beautiful.

Camorro, 25 years old, mostly travelling with matriarch Toni, shows joy of life on 18.08.2023

Epilogue by our staff member Christine Schmid

In general, it can be said that the interactions mainly affect recreational boats of up to 15 metres in length, in most cases sailing boats, but not exclusively. The Orcas mainly target the rudder of the boats, they "play" with the rudder, damage it or break it off completely, which means that about 14 % of the affected boats are unable to manoeuvre after an interaction and must be towed away.

This population is classified as endangered in the Spanish Catalogue of Endangered Species (CEEA), listed in "Royal Decree 139/2011 of 4 February". For species included in the CEEA, "Article 57 of Law 42/2007 of 13 December on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity" any act aimed at killing, capturing, persecuting, or disturbing them is prohibited.

In addition, the "Royal Decree 1727/2007 of 21 December 2007" establishes measures for the protection of cetaceans to ensure their survival and favourable conservation status.

Explicitly prohibited is:

  • approaching marine mammals more than 60 m by boat.
  • physical contact of vessels or persons with the whales or groups of whales.
  • feeding the animals, throwing food, drink, rubbish, or other objects or solid or liquid substances overboard that could be harmful to the whales.
  • obstruct the free movement of whales, stand in their way, cut off their path or cross a group of whales at any time and in any direction.
  • separate or disperse the group of whales and to place oneself between an adult animal and its calf.
  • make loud or shrill noises or sounds to attract or drive them away, including sounds made underwater.
  • bathing or diving in the exclusion zone of the mobile whale sanctuary.

What we should never forget is that the sea is the home of these wonderful marine mammals. We sail the sea with our recreational boats mainly for our pleasure, thus invading the habitat of wildlife, and should submit to the forces of nature and the animals' survival needs. In the case of the Orcas, this means avoiding certain areas at certain times. Just as you should not sail in a strong storm. In general, it is safer to sail as close to the coast as possible in areas where the Orcas frequent, and to cross the Strait in places where interactions have rarely or never been reported.

We wish everyone, animals and humans, a peaceful coexistence at sea and hope that these tips are helpful.

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