Are Whales Really A Threat To Cruisers?
Yachting Monthly|December 2020
With reports of orcas ‘attacking’ yachts off the Spanish coast, Katy Stickland investigates what may be driving the whales’ behaviour and what steps cruisers can take to avoid an encounter.
Katy Stickland

A common fear amongst cruisers, especially those sailing offshore, is hitting a whale.

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 SRIKES?

But what of whales deliberately ramming yachts? Since July there have been reports of orcas ‘attacking’ boats off the Spanish and Portuguese coast which have left the scientific community baffled, and 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.

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