Killer Whales that contacted small boats have been previous targets of attack

by Deborah Cater
Killer whales contacting small boats have been attacked previously

As reported earlier this summer, orcas had been making contact with small boats along the southern coast of Spain. It turns out, the killer whales had previously been the targets of attacks and harpoons.

At least 150 interactions took place between orcas and small boats this year. These contacts caused the Cádiz Maritime Captaincy to prohibit sailboats of less than 15metres in the Ensenada de Barbate (Cádiz) until September 7.

Photos and videos from an orca tracker show the orcas responsible had been subjected to attacks. The orca tracker provides information for educational purposes and scientists who work for tourism companies.

Attacked with harpoons

Director since 2014 of the Cetacean Interpretation Center and Aula del Mar de Tarifa (CICAM), Francisco Gil, has been working as a tracker for twenty years. He assures the news agency Efe that until now the unprecedented behaviour of killer whales, could be a response to the attacks they suffered last summer and have continued to suffer this summer.

Collaborator of several university centres, Gil dived with all the species of cetaceans in the Strait until the prohibition of this activity in 2007. In his daily outings in search of cetaceans, he verified last year there were killer whales with wounds and scars. These showed some  had been harpooned with a hook. Episodes that he is sure were repeated this summer.

In addition to photos on the surface, Gil keeps underwater photos – made with permission of the Ministry of Ecological Transition and taken by Rafael Fernández Caballero – of the injured killer whales. A video of about five minutes of duration recorded by the crew of a sailboat being contacted by cetaceans, shows they respond by using the boat hook.

Killer whales, which can weigh up to five and a half tons, do not attack sailboats because. This view is shared by the Atlantic Orca Task Force: “They are not attacking. If they wanted to capsize a boat, they would do it”

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‘Protests’ by orcas

The attacks are why the orca contacts this summer have become so frequent; until last year they practically did not occur. Francisco Gil interprets them as ‘a protest’ of the animals. This is a new hypothesis from a person who spends a lot of time with orcas.

Scientists recognise there are several hypotheses on the table and that this unusual behaviour needs to be scientifically verified. It could be a game, tuna hunting training, or an animal response to something we are doing wrong; because , they admit, at sea “real atrocities are being done”.

Hunting tuna

Historically, Gil insists, orcas and men have lived together and even collaborated in fishing for tuna. Every spring, when the shoals of tuna reach the Mediterranean, the orcas corner them and push them towards the traditional Cadiz traps traditionally used to catch the fish.

The killer whale swims at 50 kilometers per hour and the tuna at 90, so the cetacean organise into groups that harass and surround them.

Francisco Gil regrets these events are taking place in a period of abundance of tunas. He has considered the fishing quotas should be reviewed to expand those of the traps and other traditional arts of the fishermen of the region.

The killer whales have only contacted small sailboats, which carry the propeller in front and very far from the rudder. This allows them to bite the latter without risk and render the boats useless. Hence the follwoing recommendations of Maritime Rescue. In case of contact with killer whales: leave the rudder still and aligned with the hull of the boat; stop the boat by folding sails and stopping the engine; and do not look over the side or shout.

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