ANIMAL WELFARE

Why killer whales are targeting boats in northwestern Spain

Researchers are baffled by the high number of run-ins between yachts and orcas but believe the animals are approaching out of curiosity, not animosity

Video of orca encounters with boats off the coast of Spain.
Madrid / Santiago de Compostela - 29 sep 2020 - 09:51 UTC

When Justin Crowther felt something pull at the rudder of his yacht, he thought there must have been a problem with the autopilot system. But just as the British sailor entered the cabin of Beautiful Dreamer to turn off the system, he heard one of his crew members cry: “Orcas!”

Crowther could no longer steer the boat and he called the maritime rescue service for help. It was only later, when he saw the damage done to his yacht, that he felt scared. “Only then you understand that you were very lucky,” he tells EL PAÍS by phone.

The 53-year-old and his two crew members are not the only ones to have encountered orcas, also known as killer whales, off the Galician coast in northwestern Spain. In August and September, there have been a high number of run-ins with orcas. Since August 31, the maritime rescue service has helped eight yachts in the region, but there have been other incidents that have not required assistance.

According to information from the Ministry for Ecological Transition, the brushes between the whales and the yachts began on August 19. All have taken place between two and eight nautical miles from the coast of Galicia and have involved medium-sized sailing boats moving at a speed of between five and nine knots.

The frequency of the incidents has baffled scientists: they have never seen anything like it before. Researchers now believe that two or three young and curious orcas are responsible for the attacks.

The incidents with the killer whales have not always ended in broken rudders or damaged hulls: on many occasions the animals have simply approached the boats. But it is still a delicate situation as these encounters can cause problems for both the orcas and the yachts.

In a bid to minimize the risk of collisions, yachts 15 meters long and under were temporarily banned from sailing between Cape Prioriño Grande and the Punta de Estaca de Bares in Galicia. If a boat comes across a whale, occupants are advised to “keep sailing in the same direction and speed, without making sudden changes or trying to get within 60 meters of the animal,” according to the resolution. The document also banned any action aimed at “killing, capturing, pursuing or upsetting” the orcas, which are considered vulnerable under Spain’s list of endangered species.

Crowther was sailing in this stretch of sea when maritime rescue services arrived to tow the yacht. The rescue conditions were not good: the wind was against them, the rudder was destroyed and the rescue boat was also under pressure from the orcas. The crew aboard the Beautiful Dreamer were worried: when the maritime rescue boat began to tow them, the yacht slipped sideways against the waves.

“We were going pretty quickly, but I asked them to speed up a little to straighten up the boat,” says Crowther. The hauling rope broke and that’s when he realized the orcas were still there. Once he reached A Coruña and was able to review the damage, it became clear that the killer whales had almost overturned the yacht.

It might sound as if all the boats are damaged but that is not the case
Alfredo López, biology professor at CEMMA

“I have sailed in Australia, Tahiti, Canada... all over the world, and I had seen orcas, but none had ever gotten this close,” says Crowther.

Scientists from the Galician NGO Marine Mammal Research Center (CEMMA) believe that two or three young whales from a pod that was migrating north decided to approach the boats out of curiosity. Alfredo López, a biology professor at CEMMA, argues that the whales are not attacking boats. According to him, that would be “a premeditated action to cause damage and that’s not what’s happening here, even if eventually damage is done. Our interpretation is that they don’t have the slightest intention of attacking people.”

While reviewing photos and video taken of the whales, researchers noticed that two of the orcas were seriously injured. Although it is not possible to confirm how they were hurt, Ruth Esteban, an expert in marine science and a member of a research group working under the Coordinating Agency for the Study of Marine Mammals in Galicia, believes there are two possibilities: either the orcas were hurt while interacting with the boats, or they were injured earlier and this triggered their response. “It’s not revenge,” adds López. “They’re just acting out as a precautionary measure.”

Orcas regularly come into Spanish waters from the Strait of Gibraltar and also the Atlantic coasts of Cádiz, Galicia and the Cantabrian Sea in search of bluefin tuna, moving in stable social groups. “They come through every year and each year they are sighted in Portugal, after which they arrive here in eight to 10 days,” López explains.

This year, several ornithologists sighted them on August 10 and the expectation was that they would come and go as usual. But, over the past week, three different groups with a total of 13 orcas between them have been sighted.

“It might sound as if all the boats are being damaged, but that is not the case,” López points out. In fact, according to the data, there have been 29 whale sightings – 55% from yachts and of these, only 20% reported any damage or trouble.

José Ángel Sanz, the founder of the NGO Oceano Alfa, says he has dived with orcas and has never had any mishaps. “They are very curious and come close to you,” he says. “They follow the boats and their attention is drawn to the engine area; to the sound, and to the rudder, because it juts out.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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