Dozens of incidents involving killer whales and boats have been reported so far this year off the coast of Spain and Portugal.
An orca has severely damaged a sailboat off the southern coast of Spain, with dozens of orca attacks on ships off the coast of Spain and Portugal so far this year, local maritime rescue services said.
There have been at least 20 interactions between small boats and killer whales in the Strait of Gibraltar this month alone, according to the Atlantic Killer Whale Task Force GTOA, which tracks populations of the Iberian killer whale subspecies.
A pod of orcas crashed into the Gibraltar-bound Mustique in the early hours of Thursday, smashing the rudder and puncturing the hull, prompting the sailing boat’s four crew members to contact Spanish authorities for help, a Sea Rescue spokesman said.
Rescue services deployed a quick-response vessel and a helicopter with bilge pumps to assist the 20-meter (66-foot) British-flagged vessel, the spokesman said.
The Mustique was towed to the port of Barbate in the province of Cádiz, Spain for repairs.
There have been at least 20 interactions between small vessels and highly social top predators in the Strait of Gibraltar this month alone. GTOA data shows that by 2022, 207 interactions were reported.
Yesterday, two ships interacted, one was towed north of Tangier and the other south of Barbat. But at this time a third ship was entering the area and appeared to be having difficulty. View maps and traffic lights on the app (GT Orcas) and on the web https://t.co/GUq8icOtkX
— Orca Ibérica GTOA (@Orca_Iberica) May 24, 2023
Although known as killer whales, the endangered orcas are part of the dolphin family. They can reach a height of 8 meters (26 ft) and a weight of up to 6 tons as adults.
The Alboran Champagne was similarly struck by three orcas half a nautical mile (less than 1 kilometer) from Barbate earlier this month. The ship could not be towed as it was completely submerged and left to drift and sink.
A study published in 2021 on orca interactions with vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar said that in 2020, several orcas began exhibiting destructive behavior towards vessels — mostly sailing boats, but also fishing boats and motorboats.
“The animals rammed, pushed and turned the boat,” the report said, noting that 14 individual orcas, most of them juveniles, were identified as engaging in such behavior.
“The behavior of killer whales when interacting with boats was not considered aggressive,” the report states.
“We’re not yet sure what the origin of these interactions was, but still suspect that it could be an act of curiosity and playfulness, possibly self-induced, or on the other hand could be a behavioral event evoked by an emotion of disgust, and thus a preventive behavior,” the report states.
Guidelines issued by the Spanish Ministry of Transport state that whenever vessels observe any change in the behavior of the orcas — such as a sudden change in direction or speed — they should leave the area as soon as possible to avoid further disturbance to the animals during the voyage.
Every interaction between the vessel and the orcas must be reported to the authorities, the ministry added.