Cruising Resources: Orcas and Yachts

Orcas around the Atlantic Iberian Peninsula

Since 2020 there has been a pattern of behaviour within a population of orcas that feeds on and follows the migration of tuna exiting the Mediterranean from the Strait of Gibraltar and heading West and North around the Iberian Peninsula over a period of several months.

Plan of the likely route and areas for attack risk.

This behaviour has seen juvenile orcas interact with vessels (mostly sailboats) that are transiting this coastline, in many instances causing damage to rudders. Orca encounters are now a common risk for yachts making passage in the waters off the western Iberian peninsula.

Many yachts don’t come across Orcas and a great number sight the whales, but have an incident-free encounter. However there are instances where interactions have appeared “threatening”, with a growing number of yachts suffering severe rudder damage.

Up until July 2022, interactions were limited to just damage; the orcas’ ‘playing’ with rudders of sailing boats essentially left them stranded, but otherwise intact. The worst that happened was a wait for rescue, and then an expensive repair bill.

But that changed in July 2022 when a family’s boat sank after a late-night ‘interaction’ off Sines in the south of Portugal, followed by a second sinking off Viana do Castelo in the north of Portugal at the start of November 2022. Five yachts have been sunk to date, with the most recent in May 2024 in the southern Straits of Gibraltar.

The reason for this recent and repetitive behavior towards small vessels is still not fully understood, however, after several years of increased interactions between orca and yachts, scientists now have some theories as why this is happening. Interesting articles with alternative views from scientists include:

Tools for finding the Atlantic Orcas

If you are planning a passage around the Iberian peninsula, do your research first and identify where you can get the latest location information on encounters and orca sightings. It can be confusing as more and more initiatives to track and discuss orcas in this area develop, all wanting data from yacht skippers and all offering advice etc. Below we outline the main organisations that you should consult and report to if an interaction takes place.

  • Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica [GTOA] have a database with more than 1000 orca sightings in this region since 2020. They were the first organisation to start collecting data about the orcas and yachts and continue with their efforts. They have an active mobile app and are definitely the first place to report an interaction or find out the latest activities. Find out more at https://www.orcaiberica.org/.
  • In 2022 The Cruising Association established a collaborative agreement with GTOA and began asking yachts to report sightings and interactions. Go to https://www.theca.org.uk/orcas/interaction-report-form. Their advice and conclusions can be found at www.theca.org.uk/orcas/. This project is on-going and relies on feedback from as many skippers as possible making this passage, whether they encounter orcas or not. There is a great deal of detail here and very interesting reading. A map shows you a history of incidents with all the feedback reported, there is a section on extracts from these reports as comments filed under what measures were taken by skippers when encountering orcas, plus a recommended safety protocol and current guidance.

  • In May 2023, the CA updated its ‘orca information and reporting’ portal reflecting the research and analysis the CA had conducted since June 2022. The CA’s killer whale project team has analyzed over 300 reports of interaction and passage without incident received in 2022 and some patterns have emerged which are shared on the portal. All CA interaction and sighting records are listed on the GTOA GT Orcas app.
  • In January 2023, the autonomous authority of Galicia launched an application called Orcinus which shows the previous month’s interaction and sighting data (which then disappears). Find out more at this news report. Note, that Orcinus does not dedicate any resources to monitoring orcas (unlike GTOA) and do not collaborate with GTOA.
  • Circe [https://circe.info/orcinus/] monitor the population of orca in the Gulf of Cadiz.
  • Orcas.pt [https://www.orcas.pt/] is a community-driven group that report and discuss. They have two Telegram conversation groups for yachts transiting this coast. One of the groups is for sharing the location of orcas only, and the other is a discussion group to exchange experiences and mitigation actions to avoid an incident. There are over 1000 members and the groups are very active. Go to Orcas @ Portugal & Spain to sign up. They also have a Facebook Page and a You Tube Channel with interesting discussions about the Iberian orcas. Again, Orcas.pt does not dedicate any resources to monitoring orcas (unlike GTOA) and do not collaborate with GTOA.
  • There is alot of useful information and feedback on the Orca attack Facebook group: Orca Attack Reports.

How to Navigate “Orca Alley”

If preparing for a transit around/along the Iberian Peninsula where orca are active, use these guidelines published by Noonsite in collaboration with the CA and learn how you can use your experience to help those following in your wake.

Other useful articles/webinars/links to help prepare include:

A growing number of yachting organisations are publishing advice for yachts, alongside recommendations from orca working groups. This can all be found in the useful resources on this page, as well as news of reported encounters with yachts and orca-related reports.

One of the Orcas photographed by the Spanish Naval yacht “Mirfak”

Avoiding the Orcas

The Cruising Association note that the majority of interactions have occurred in a water depth greater than 40 metres and the CA data at www.theca.org.uk/orcas/reports (comparative data tab) highlights the increased risk posed by traveling in deeper water. Their advice to avoid interactions is to stay less than two miles off shore and navigate in less than 20 metres of water.

In the southern Spain (Barbate) area, where a number of incidents occured in Spring 2023, it is possible to pass through the area in, or near to, the 20m depth contour. However wind, sea state and tides need to be considered with regard to the possibility of being disabled near to shore or shallows and the huge tuna nets need to be avoided (it is understood to be possible to pass inside the net at the Barbate harbour entrance.)

Orcas.pt recommend the safest route towards Gibraltar is going to Cadiz and following the coast along the 20-meter depth contour until Gibraltar.

It’s also useful to review the CA Orca Project collated library of skippers’ comments on deterrent measures – www.theca.org.uk/orcas/interaction-deterrent-library

In Spain and Portugal, current legislation does not allow the use of acoustic devices to deter orcas. Since 2022 GTOA have been collaborating with the working group launched by the Portuguese government in which an acoustic proposal proposed by GenusWave has been selected, which is being prepared for tests at sea, experimentally but not on yachts. It is hoped this may be available for the 2024 season. See more information here.

Latest Orca Reports:

See “Discover More” below and related news for latest reports.

July 2024: 12m yacht broken rudder SW of Brest, NW France

May 2024: First yacht sunk in 2024 (15m sailboat), May 12th, 14 miles from Cape Spartel at the southern entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar.

April 2024: On 11 April, first interaction with orca this year off Galicia (Finisterre – Malpica) resulting in a broken rudder. GTOA predict orca are traveling south.

March 2024: Orcas active off Figueira da Foz, Portugal – catamaran suffered rudder damage (from Orca Attack Reports Facebook Group).

November 2023: Two yachts sunk in Straits of Gibraltar.

From Orca Iberica GTOA, 8 November, 2023: Based on the 10 records of interaction and sightings of orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar, from October 25 to November 7 (13 days), we have established a map of occupation of the environment and risk of passage. At this moment, several groups of orcas are entering the Strait of Gibraltar from the west (orange arrow I) and from the southwest (orange arrow II), parallel to the African coast. The establishment of these groups of orcas in this area delimits three distribution areas:

  • A: central establishment area, west of the maritime traffic device-DTM.
  • B: movement zone, between this area and the east of Tarifa.
  • C: expansion areas, to the west, towards the south of Trafalgar, corresponding to the western entrance road, and to the east to Gibraltar.
This delimits two navigation areas for sailboats with low risk of interaction: 1-north coast, and 2-on the south coast, both at depths less than the isobath of 50 m. The north-south passage of the Strait is between Gibraltar and Ceuta, this passage has more risk than the navigation areas but less risk than the distribution areas where the orcas are more intensely present.
An interaction intensity of 1/40 ships passing through zone A with AIS is estimated, or 1/200 ships of all types (from 5 to 30 m in length) throughout the strait.
Remember that you have the GT ORCAS mobile application available (with data from 993 encounters with orcas since 2020) to receive or transfer information and that the contribution of your data is essential to make predictions and inform all sailors. You can also send reports to the Cruising Association: https://www.theca.org.uk/orcas.

August 2023

  • In a change of behaviour, orcas have been sighted inside the Rias Baixas for the first time in many years – Ria de Arousa and Ria de Vigo. A French yacht was intercepted by orcas inbetween the islands of Salvora and Ons (at the mouth of Ria de Arousa) in 60m depths on 19 August, 2023.
  • Orcas interacting with yachts off Northern Spain in the Gulf of Bizkaia off the Basque coast. See news item here. The first incident was 20 miles north of Zumaia on Saturday 12 August, 2023, and the second 18 miles north of Ondarroa in the early hours of Sunday morning (probably the same group).

July 2023

June 2023

May 2023

April 2023

  • A Fountain Pajot New Isla 40 catamaran with black underwater paint reported an encounter with four Orcas on April 12 at 36deg. 03.35‘N 006 deg. 11,3‘W that lasted about seven minutes. The vessel continued to Gibraltar without any other incidents and after a diving inspection found two cracks in the rudder.

Iberian Orca Reference:

See News below for more articles.

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