Killer whales severely damaged a sailing boat off the coast of southern Spain, the local maritime rescue service has said, adding to dozens of attacks by orcas on vessels recorded so far this year off Spanish and Portuguese coasts.
The incident follows at least 20 interactions this month alone in the Strait of Gibraltar between small vessels and killer whales, according to the Atlantic Orca Working Group-GTOA, which tracks populations of the Iberian orca subspecies.
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In the early hours of Thursday morning, a group of orcas broke the rudder and pierced the hull after ramming into the Mustique as it sailed to Gibraltar, prompting the sailing boat’s crew of four to contact Spanish authorities for help, a spokesman for the maritime rescue service said.
The rescue service deployed a rapid-response vessel and a helicopter carrying a bilge pump to assist the 20-metre (66 feet) vessel, which was sailing under the United Kingdom’s flag, the spokesman said.
The Mustique was towed to the port of Barbate, in the Spanish province of Cadiz, for repairs.
The incident follows at least 20 interactions this month alone in the Strait of Gibraltar between small vessels and the highly social apex predators. In 2022, there were 207 reported interactions, GTOA data showed.
Yesterday two ships interacted, one north of Tanger, towed, and the other south of Barbate. But at this moment a third ship is entering the area and seems to be having difficulties. Consult maps and traffic lights in 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, endangered orcas are part of the dolphin family. They can measure up to 8 metres (26 ft) and weigh up to six tonnes as adults.
Earlier this month, the sailing yacht Alboran Champagne suffered a similar impact from three orcas half a nautical mile (less than 1km) off Barbate. The ship could not be towed as it was completely flooded and was left adrift to sink.
A study published in 2021 on orca interactions with vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar said that several orcas began showing disruptive behaviour towards boats in 2020 – most were sailing vessels but also involved fishing boats and motorboats.
“The animals bumped, pushed and turned the boats,” the report stated, noting that 14 individual orcas, most of them juveniles, had been identified engaging in such behaviour.
“The behaviour of orcas when interacting with boats is not identified as aggressive,” the report states.
“We are not yet certain what the origin of these interactions is, but it is still suspected that it could be a curious and playful behaviour, which could be self-induced, or on the other hand it could be a behaviour induced by an aversive incident and therefore a precautionary behaviour,” the report states.
Guidelines issued by the Spanish Transport Ministry stipulate that whenever ships observe any alteration in the behaviour of orcas – such as sudden changes of direction or speed – they should leave the area as soon as possible and avoid further disturbance to the animals during the manoeuvres.
Every interaction between a ship and an orca must be reported to authorities, the ministry added.