With reports of orcas ‘attacking’ yachts off the Spanish coast, Katy Stickland investigates if whales are really a threat to sailors and what steps cruisers can take to avoid an encounter
A common fear amongst cruisers, especially those sailing offshore, is hitting whales.
According to figures from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Ship Strike Database, there were 605 confirmed, known as definite, collisions between a whale and a vessel between 1820-2019, although the IWC concedes that many incidents aren’t reported.
Most IWC reports occurred after 1990, with the highest number of strikes recorded in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean.
Of the 402 cases which included vessel data, 49 involved sailing yachts, second behind ferries which were involved in 52 cases.
Fin whales are the most likely species to be involved in a strike, followed by the humpback and sperm.
The mammals were generally young and death was a common occurrence.
In more than half of incidents there was no vessel damage, with only 7.4% reporting major damage and 3% reporting a total loss of a vessel.
In 38 cases (28.1%) damage was indicated.
One of the most famous incidents involved Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, whose Golden Hind 31 Auralyn hit a large whale in the Pacific in 1973 while sailing from Southampton to New Zealand.
Auralyn was holed and sank and they spent 117 days in a liferaft until they were rescued.
Deliberate strikes by whales?
But what of whales deliberately ramming yachts?
Since July there have been reports of orcas, the largest of the dolphin family, ‘attacking’ boats off the Spanish and Portuguese coast which have left the scientific community baffled.
It has also caused Spain’s Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (MITMA) to introduce a no-sailing zone for yachts 15m (50ft) or less from Cape Finisterre to Punta de Estaca de Bares on Galicia’s north coast.
Reconnaissance flights have also been set up to warn sailors of sightings.
Initially, incidents were reported close to the Strait of Gibraltar, where there is a pod of orcas known for playing in wakes.
These mammals have also clashed with local fishermen over claims to the area’s blue fin tuna, with reports of the orcas being deliberately hit by fishermen’s boats.
The strikes moved north in mid August, with dozens of encounters reported in the Galicia region; in some cases yachts were disabled and needed rescue.
MITMA said all encounters in Galicia took place 2-8 miles from the coast and involved yachts under 15m (50ft).
Yachts were underway at between 5 and 9 knots, either sailing or motorsailing.
One recent encounter happened 20 miles offshore at Porto, northwest Portugal.
Graeme and Moira Walker, along with crew Steve Robinson were motorsailing their Beneteau First 47.7, Promise 3 off Finisterre at 0645 on 22 September when they endured a 45-minute orca encounter.
Graeme said they had been looking out for the orcas but only became aware of them when ‘the wheel was taken out of my hands, then one broke the surface on the port side, followed by another a minute later.’
The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) told them to stop the vessel, and they put the engine into neutral.
‘There was little breeze, so the boat slowed from 6.5 knots to half a knot. The attacks continued on the rudder whilst another orca arrived. We can’t be certain but we believe that the larger animal was the one swimming under the yacht and using its back to force a sudden change of direction [of the yacht]’.
Attracted by noise
The orcas focussed on the rudder and keel and only stopped when the engine was turned off.
The yacht’s steering was undamaged and the crew headed to A Coruña, initially sailing to avoid a further encounter.
Inspection of the yacht showed damage to the rudder.
Based on his experience, Graeme recommended sailors navigate the area in daylight for a better chance of spotting the orcas to give them a wide berth.
He would also advise switching off the engine immediately and letting go of the helm as, initially, he had tried to hold it.
Graeme also wondered if sounding a fog horn may have caused the animals to leave.
The MRCC did initially suggest sending a large boat to Promise 3’s position, believing a more powerful engine noise could chase the orcas away.
Other yachts have been disabled by encounters.
A Halcyon Yachts delivery crew needed rescue north of A Coruña after an orca damaged the rudder on a Hallberg Rassy 36.
Again, the crew were motorsailing, and the mammal targeted the rudder before spinning the boat 360°.
Once the engine was turned off the orca disappeared, only to return when the yacht was being towed by A Coruña’s rescue services.
The mammal hit the boat until the tow line broke.
‘Teeth marks’ were found on the bulb keel, although the GRP hadn’t been punctured.
It is unclear if it’s the same pod, although scientists think it’s unlikely that different pods would carry out similar behaviour.
Orcas are known to ‘play’ with boats, holding onto the rudder with their mouth in order to be pulled along.
Marine Conservation Research International runs its own steel-hulled 22m (73ft) research vessel, Song of the Whale, to study marine wildlife globally.
Its director, Anna Moscrop, said orcas were highly intelligent mammals which often lived in large social groups.
They are highly curious and playful, communicate and coordinate their activities and are known to investigate vessels and noises; even the sound of a rudder moving could attract them.
She said there had been many benign encounters between orcas and boats off the Spanish coast, and believed the recent spate of damage had been caused by ‘young, over-exuberant sub-adult individuals who are basically “playing” with the vessel.
‘However, these are large ocean-going predators, and the size and physical strength of these whales [orca] is clear; these encounters have been frightening for the people on the boats involved,’ she added.
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The orca’s behaviour may be due to a previous incident, as some individuals exhibit scars from vessel interactions.
Moscrop has consulted with Dr Ruth Esteban, one of a team of local experts with Galicia’s Coordinating Agency for the Study of Marine Mammals (CEMMA) studying the recent incidents.
In the event of an orca encounter, sailors are advised to safely stop the boat, lower the sails, and switch off any electrical equipment, as sometimes the animals then lose interest.
Where possible, avoid approaching the mammals, although most skippers were unaware of the orcas until first contact at the stern.
It is also recommended that crew contact MRCC, which can advise on the safest course of action.
Skippers can contact CEMMA (email@example.com) which will collect photos or video of the orcas and the boat damage as part of their research into the mammal’s unusual behaviour.