SPECIAL REPORT: HELEN FRETTER ON ORCA ‘ATTACKS' ON YACHTS
Yachting World|September 2021
The first signs that something odd was taking place came in July 2020. After the strangest start to a summer any of us can remember, just as Europe began to open up to sailing once again, there were reports from Gibraltar and the Spanish Atlantic coast of orcas apparently attacking yachts.

Orcas are considered calves until they wean, at around four years, and juvenile until males grow a dorsal fin, at around 14 years old, or females have their first calf at 12-13 years

One of the earliest incidents involved a Hallberg-Rassy 36, which was being sailed to southern Spain by a delivery crew from Halcyon Yachts. “Our crew had just set off from A Coruña and were a couple of miles offshore when the crew suddenly felt the wheel being ripped out of their hands,” Peter Green of Halcyon Yachts explained. The yacht was later taken under tow, but the impacts from the orcas continued, snapping the tow rope. When the yacht was lifted ashore there were clear bite marks on the hull and the rudder was split in two.

Although such incidents sound almost unbelievable, a clear pattern soon began to emerge. Spanish naval yacht, Mirfak, lost part of its rudder after orcas appeared to bite at the stern of the yacht – which the crew captured on video. Within six months, there had been around 40 such incidents reported.

The Atlantic Orca Working Group has live data on latest incidents and advice at orcaiberica.org

This summer, the situation escalated. Dr Ruth Esteban, a marine scientist who has spent six years observing the Spanish orca population and is now investigating the orcas’ behaviour with the Atlantic Orca Working Group, says that from June to mid-July 2021 alone there were 53 reported incidents.

Martin Evans was on board another HallbergRassy, a 49 called Kismet, also being delivered by a Halcyon Yachts crew. The crew were some 50 miles west of Gibraltar when they encountered a large group of orcas in June this year.

“I was quite aware of the orca interactions beforehand but I thought we kind of got through the worst area of it by the time we had ours. There are two little pots of shallow water around Cadiz heading towards Tarifa. I was on my watch and the boat was on autopilot. I turned around to see the steering of the boat flying left, right, left, right, crashing on its binnacle. I turned the pilot to manual, and then either side of me there were orcas everywhere.”

Martin Evans estimates that there were around a dozen or more whales around their yacht, ranging from small juveniles to full-size adults. “There was constant whale activity, port and starboard side. Wherever we looked there was one coming in.”

“I think we were hit on the rudder 100 or 200 times. It was consistent. They were around for a solid hour. We put sails down as per the guidance, and eventually they did go away.

But they were gone for 20 minutes, then they came back. We could see them breaking the surface in the distance and making a beeline straight for the rudder. They were very focussed in their task.”

At one point Evans could see an orca with a chunk of the rudder’s foam in its mouth. After another 40 minutes, the orcas finally swam away.

What nobody knows is why the orcas started behaving this way, or why the apparent attacks are becoming more frequent. Theories abound – some have suggested that a member of the family group was injured by a boat and the whales are seeking revenge.

Dr Esteban does not join the speculation. “We didn't know at the beginning and we still don’t know now why it is happening. And I don't know if we will ever know.”

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