It’s been all over the news lately, Orcas encounters with boats are multiplying with serious consequences. If most interactions have relatively happy endings, lastest encounters have left boats wrecked and crews traumatized.
Where do encounters happen? Why are Orcas interacting this way? And moreover what to do if you find yourself in a tricky situation? The Octopus will try to give as many detailed and objective answers as possible, on a trend that we hope will disappear as suddenly as it started.
Where do the encounters between Orcas and boats happen ?
Since 2020, we have been observing a rise in the number of reported interactions between Orcas and boaters in an area extending from the Strait of Gibraltar to the “Golfe de Gascogne” including Galicia. Since, they have multiplied and in 2022 events in Portugal, Brittany and Spain have sadely seen sailboats being badly damaged or even worse, wrecked.
Scientists seem to agree that the interactions with boats that lead to damage are the action of one group of individuals formed by a sub-population originating from the “Iberica Peninsula”.
Why do Orcas “attack” boats?
1- The most probable answer : a trend, en educative game that has spread to the group
A game developed amongst juvenile males, that became a social norm diffused amongst other groups of Orcas inhabiting that area. Orcas are complex mammals that can adopt trends as it was previously observed. In the 90s a group started arboring a dead salmon on their head and more recently games with shrimp traps have been observed. Games and trends that could disappear as fast as they came, wish the experts.
A fact: The rise of orcas population in the area.
For a few years, scientists have observed that some groups of orcas that usually migrate to the north at this season, seemed to enjoy the area and prolonged their stay. It is then obvious that the more orcas in the area leads to more encounters and more encounters with risk of relatively bad endings. It is not a reason for orcas to approach boats, but that explains the rise in encounters with boaters in the area.
3- A little far fetched : Orcas that hold grudges?
Orcas hunt in this area invaded by many fishing boats from the small ones to industrial sized floating machinery. Encounters are inevitable and multiply as time passes. Would this have changed the orcas behavior towards boats and humans? Not impossible, but hard to prove and a little romanised probably.
If these are hypotheses, it is certain that recent interactions which led to boat wreckages, force scientists to lead more research in order to deepen our understanding and educate and inform us to avoid bad encounters.
What to do if orcas start interacting with your boat?
It is important to understand that compared to the total number of encounters observed between orcas and boats, a great majority don’t end up in a wreckage or serious damage to the boat. Nevertheless, it is crucial to be informed and educated on the walk to follow in the events of violent interactions.
1- Do not Panic
- It is important to remain calm for two reasons :
If orcas “attack” boats and are responsible for serious damage leading to boat leading to sinking, none of them have resulted in the death of a boater nor direct physical injury inflicted. Orcas don’t naturally attack humans, so it is unlikely this is a hunting session.
- Staying calm will help you realize the next steps in a safe and optimized manner.
2- Take down all your sails, cut the engine and let the helm loose.
If the boat is not in motion, it is likely the orcas will lose interest. It is what has been observed in at least 50% of reported interactions, but it is also for your own safety onboard. If you lose your helm, you better have all sails down. Same for the rudder, if an orca hits it violently and you’re holding on to it, you might get severely injured.
Some would argue that holding it straight lesser the risk for it to break, but believe the scientists, these beasts are powerful and it might not be worth breaking an arm in a desperate attempt to save your helm.
3- Cut all electronic devices, sonar in particular.
Your sonar speaks the same language as orcas. Cutting it is recommended to avoid disturbing the orcas. Keep only your VHF running in case you need to contact emergencies.
4- Do not make any bold movements directed to the orcas in an attempt to make them flee by yourself, there’s no real chance this will work.
5- Contact emergencies or other boaters in your surroundings to obtain help. You can also send an SOS through Navily, creating a conversation with all nearby boaters using the app, to help you assess the situation and get help.
Avoid interactions and report observations
Online boating communities are discussing
Since more interactions between orcas and boats happen, people have been discussing the matter online. In an attempt to better understand, inform and exchange on their experience they have gathered in many groups online.
We invite you to join or consult the facebook group Orca attacks reporting for instance, to keep up with the latest news on orcas interactions in the area. Numerous solutions are discussed, and you will find helpful information.
Updated map of Orcas observations and interactions.
Finally, you can consult a weekly updated interactive map of Orcas interactions with boats here. Orcaiberica.org has been live since 2020, but gathered scientists and benevolent studying Orcas in the area for the past 15 years. You can also find more information on their website like safety protocols and latest news on the subject. If you are a witness of an interaction or have experienced it yourself, you can help them in their studies by reporting your encounter directly on their website.
All witnessing, pictures, videos and details reported are crucial to deepen our understanding of orcas in the Iberica Peninsula. It will allow us to identify orcas in the area and understand their movement patterns helping us increase our knowledge on their behavior.
We would like to thank Paula Mendez Fernandez, research engineer at “Observatoire Pelagos” CNRS La Rochelle, who peer reviewed our article and provided valuable information.
Cetaceans are majestic creatures that easily interact with humans and boats. But they are wild animals, and should be treated as such. To learn more about these masters of the sea and how to interact with them, check out our cetaceans sheets, made with wildlife photographer and biologist, Serge Briez!
Stay safe and fair winds Captain,