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Orca incidents in coastal waters of Spain
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Incidents

The RYA has been notified of a number of incidents involving orca whales bumping and damaging sailing craft within Spanish waters.

The first incident (Video 1) reported to the RYA occurred on 22nd July 2020, to the West of Tarifa on the approach to the Straits of Gibraltar. Here, a yacht under power was repeatedly bumped by a group of whales. The force of the impacts had enough strength to spin the yacht through 120°. The incident began when the helm of the yacht was forced “hard over”, with the crew not aware of the presence of whales until they surfaced close by before striking the craft again.

Image from video 1: Incident off Straits of Gibraltar, 22nd July 2020

The second incident (Video 2) reported to the RYA took place on the morning of 22nd September 2020, approximately 20 km North West of Cape Finisterre, off NW Spain. As with the previous event, the first indications of trouble began when the yacht lurched and the helm suddenly turned. Once again, the crew only realised the presence of orcas when a whale surfaced close by. As before, the craft was then struck, spun and pushed sideways by the mammals.

Image from video 2: Incident off Cape Finisterre, 22nd September 2020

In both incidents, the craft were under power and the crews took the precaution of turning off engines and echo sounder to prevent attracting or injuring the mammals. Both yachts sustained damage to the rudder (Figure 1) and steering gear, requiring the craft to make for a port to undertake repairs. The craft involved were under 50ft (15 metres) in length. The incidents were similar, commencing with a loss of steering and violent movements of the wheel/ helm, followed by whales breaking the surface near the boats. In both cases, crews remarked on the risk of injury in trying to keep control of the wheel. Orcas then dived under the craft before commencing to bump and spin the yachts. The duration for both incidents were similar, lasting for about 45 minutes. The locations, however, were approximately 540 nautical miles (1000km) apart by sea.

Figure 1: Damaged rudder of yacht involved in incident near the Straits of Gibraltar

Several other incidents have taken place since 19th September along the coast of NW Spain. Significantly, there were reports of rudder and steering damage during a number of these. In most incidents, interactions have been with sailing yachts or craft using sail and motor under 15 metres. Locations have been between 2 and 8 nautical miles from the coast.

Safeguarding

As a result of the recent incident and others, off NW Spain, the Ministerio de Transportes, Movilidad y Agenda Urbana have taken the precaution of implementing a Navigation Exclusion Zone for craft under 15 metres between Cabo Prioriño Grande and la Punta de Estaca de Bares (Figure 2). Craft are still able to enter and leave ports and harbours in the area, but should steer the shortest possible course perpendicular (at right angles) to and from the coastline as they cross the zone. All vessels are being warned, via broadcast messages, to not approach and give a wide berth to any orca whales they encounter in the area. Any sightings should be reported to the Finisterre Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre. The RYA would also be interested to hear from anyone that has had similar experiences along the coast of Spain and Portugal.

Figure 2: Navigation Exclusion Zone for Craft <15m off NW Spain

The measures being taken by the Spanish authorities are designed to protect both people and whales, by minimising encounters.

Richard Hill, RYA Environment Officer, said: “The important issue for crews sailing in the area is understanding why this is happening and how can they protect themselves without doing harm to the whales? Speaking to those involved, crews indicate that turning off engines and echo sounders, whilst minimising noise, may help the whales lose interest and leave.”

The RYA advises that when approaching the area:

  • Maintain a radio watch for information;
  • Keep a good look-out, particularly aft, for whales breaching or blowing;
  • Keep your distance and maintain a wide-berth from any whales seen;
  • Take normal precautions and ensure safety equipment is worn (lifejackets) and close at hand;

If whales are spotted close (within 500m) or approach the craft:

  • Turn off engine and echo sounder;
  • Be prepared to let the wheel/ helm go;
  • Minimise any noise;

If struck by a whale:

  • Keep noise and light to a minimum;
  • Notify maritime authorities (e.g. MRCC), and;
  • Remain calm and sit tight.

The RYA notes that damage to steering gear reinforces the need to carry an emergency tiller.

Protection

Orcas (Orcinus orca), sometimes known as Killer Whales, are protected from deliberate disturbance, capture or killing in EU and UK waters. They are social animals, maintaining complex social structures and interactions, often within family groups who learn joint behavioural traits. The population around the Straits of Gibraltar/ Tarifa are thought to be semi-resident. They are extremely fast swimmers, able to reach speeds of 30mph (50kmh), so will easily outrun a yacht. Average size of a male orca is 6 to 8 metres, females are smaller, with calves around 2 metres in length. Adults can weigh several tons, so you are unlikely to win an arm to fin wrestling contest over a boats wheel.

For further information, contact RYA Environment and Planning Officer, Richard Hill: richard.hill@rya.org.uk

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