Encounters with orcas & how to protect your boat – Yachting Monthly

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

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.

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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…

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