Scientists are stumped as to why pods of orcas are ramming and damaging sailing boats in Spain.
Crew members have reportedly been injured – though not seriously – in the attacks over the last two months along the coastline from the Strait of Gibraltar to Galicia.
On Friday, September 11, a 36 ft boat, destined for the UK, was rammed more than a dozen times by an orca just off A Coruña, according to Halcycon Yachts.
It was towed into port to assess damage after losing steering.
Radio warnings also placed killer whales 70 miles south, at Vigo, near the site of two collisions at the end of August.
On August 30, a French-flagged vessel radioed the coastguard to say it was “under attack” from killer whales.
Later the same day, a Spanish naval yacht, Mirfak, lost part of its rudder after an encounter with a grouo of orcas under the stern in the Rias Baixas, as it was heading towards Baiona.
Footage of a pod of whales ‘attacking’ and damaging the Navy yacht went viral and sparked a warning from Spain’s sea rescue service, Salvamento Maritimo.
En este vídeo se puede ver el momento de tensión que vivieron los tripulantes de un velero de la Armada cuando fueron atacados por un grupo de orcas en las costas de Galicia.
"¡Rompió el timón!", se le escucha decir a uno de ellos. https://t.co/j7gBYdBUMf
— laSexta (@laSextaTV) September 1, 2020
Through a tweet and radio warning, they warned of the orcas’ presence in the waters of Rias Baixas.
“Boats are requested not to try to approach, give ample shelter and inform. A French sailboat and another one of the Navy have already been attacked without major damage.”
Radioaviso en Rías Bajas por avistamiento de orcas en zona. Se solicita a embarcaciones que no intenten aproximarse, den amplio resguardo e informen. Ya han sufrido acometida un velero francés y otro de la Armada sin daños mayores #SeguridadNautica (foto no referida al caso) pic.twitter.com/QmHdxAKHKZ
— SALVAMENTO MARÍTIMO (@salvamentogob) August 31, 2020
But while the maritime authorities urged boats to “keep a distance”, sailor reports over the last few months show this is easier said than does, as the marine mammals are seemingly pursuing the vessels.
Scientists have described the behaviour as “concerning” and “highly unusual”.
Other incidents occurred off Cape Trafalgar on July 29, when a 46 ft delivery boat was surrounded by nine orcas who reportedly rammed the hull for an hour, disabling the engine and breaking the rudder.
The previous night, a British couple’s 40 ft yacht was ‘spun several times’ by orcas.
Expert Dr Ruth Esteban has researched orcas around Gibraltar for many years and believes the same pod may be reponsible for the incidents, as it’s very unusual behaviour for the species.
Meanwhile, biologist Alfredo Lopez, Coordinator for the Study of Marine Mammals, said killer whales swim up the coast from the Gulf of Cadiz each September, to chase tuna into the Bay of Biscay.
In November, 2019, four killer whales were ‘officially’ sighted for the first time in the waters off the Murcia coast in Cartegena.
Pedro Garcia, director of the Association of Naturalists of the Southeast (ANSE), an entity that for decades has been conducting studies on marine mammals on the coast of the Region of Murcia, Almeria and Alicante, said it was an exceptional” sighting.
It was believed they may have made their way to the Cartagena area from the Strait of Gibraltar.
Garcia said this could be due to a dispersal movement by members of the population there.
Previously, the closest sighting of orcas to Cartegena was off Malaga.
Killer whales can measure up to nine metres and can weigh more than 5,000 kilos. They are marine mammals at the top of the food chain, and eat fish, squid, seals and other cetaceans.