Orcas also sabotage ship tow cables off the Spanish coast for the first time

by Lorraine Williamson

PROVINCIA DE CáDIZ – The Spanish Coast Guard observes different behaviour in groups of orcas. Since 2020, the service has recorded more than 250 interactions between boats and orcas in Spanish waters. A lot of points in those interactions matched up. However, now their approach appears to have changed. 

In previous interactions, the killer whales, in the most severe cases, would approach boats in groups, swam around them for 20 to 30 minutes, and pound the rudders, rendering several boats out of control. Now the orcas are back after a quiet winter. The cetaceans have already interacted with boats in the waters of Cádiz province. 

This year already 17 ‘meetings’ 

Salvamento Marítimo has already confirmed 17 ‘meetings’ at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar this year. However, only six ships ultimately needed help. Some of these cases were particularly striking: After letting the boat drift, the orcas pushed against the rope used to tow the boat. Rescuers had not seen this behaviour in the past two years, a Coast Guard spokesman confirmed to ABC. 

See also: Sailboats again aggressively treated by orcas in southern Spain 

This behavior is hardly known worldwide. It started as anecdotal, but soon rescuers confirmed that such incidents were happening repeatedly. The tow rope event was recorded in Barbate (Cádiz) on April 24. This one adds a new ingredient to the mystery of the killer whales’ behaviour. Scientists are guessing, but are still unsure of the origin of the behaviour. 

‘Incidental behaviour’ 

“The action of the animals on the tow rope is for the time being incidental”, environmental science expert Ezequiel Andréu puts it into perspective. He is one of the members of the Atlantic Orca Working Group investigating the events. He explains that some time ago they saw the killer whales approaching the boat in another instance and causing tension. Only the images of this interaction were not so clear. 

Animals in contact with everything they encounter 

Biologist and cetacean expert Alfredo López believes there is nothing new. “It is behavior that has already been observed on other occasions. Things around the ship grab their attention,” he says, so they eventually come into contact with what they encounter as they swim around the boat. As happened before with the zodiacs that towed the boats back to the ports. “They are very tactile animals, they will grab anything they can rub against.” 

Information transfer between the orcas 

Scientists disagree about the motives or origins behind these killer whales’ behaviour toward ships. It mainly affects smaller pleasure and sailing yachts. It can be a self-taught game or a defense against a bad experience. They do believe that there is a transfer of information between the animals, a learning process. According to the data handled by the working group, three tow ropes were involved in 2020 and now there are 14. 

Ramming the rudder 

For this reason, Andréu emphasises, it is important to continue to study the incidents and pay attention to their possible evolution. “A priori, we only have a specific case [where the tow rope is pushed] and the possibility that an earlier case involved a similar situation. So we don’t have enough cases to establish that it’s about changing behaviours that can be developed” or transmitted, such as ramming the rudder, he says. 

There are also not always loose tow cables. “In principle, it should not pose a danger to the boats, but we will have to continue to observe it, to see if we should recommend anything else in the protocol,” explains Andréu. 

What to do if orcas approach your boat? 

In situations like this with killer whales, Salvamento Marítimo explains, it is recommended to stop the engine, lower the sails, leave the rudder in the same longitudinal position as the hull, and disconnect the autopilot and turn off the probe, besides staying still and never leaning too far overboard. 

Endangered group 

The Iberian orca population is critically endangered. It is estimated that there are 59 specimens, spread over six herds. They specialise in catching bluefin tuna. They hunt these in their migratory current along the coast. The killer whales take advantage of the fact that the bluefin tuna spawn in the Mediterranean and hunt them when they enter and leave the Strait of the Gibraltar area. Here they also learned to deal with the Almadraba (large tuna catch along the coast of Cádiz) and to reap their benefits. 

Wrong atmosphere is created around orcas 

The presence of orcas in this area has always been common, but their interaction with ships never was until 2020. Now López denounces that after two years like this there is a certain “discontent” among the people, fuelled “on some websites” and by “some media”, which contributes to a wrong atmosphere around the intelligent and normally so peaceful animals. That is why we explicitly do not talk about attacks by orcas but about ‘interactions’. Scientists are requesting the cooperation of citizens so that they can get more information and video material of the incidents for them to study. 

See also: Orca attacks on boats in Spain explained by international experts 

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