Orca Interactions on the Atlantic Coasts of the Iberian Peninsula

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A collaboration with Groupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA)

Cruising Association and GTOA Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica

 

Since 2020 there has been a new 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.

Beginning with a few specifically identified juveniles, the behaviour of bumping/ramming the hulls of small yachts and damaging rudders has expanded to other juveniles and adults. It has been stated that up to 15% of yachts experiencing and reporting this behaviour have had to be towed to port. At this stage the scientists do not know why a limited number of orcas are displaying this behaviour and legal means of deterring or minimising interactions are required.

Concern to cruising sailors

This situation is of great concern to cruising sailors located within or transiting through the area and there is only limited evidence led advice available to help them. Accordingly, the Cruising Association has formed a collaboration with Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA), a group of Spanish and Portuguese scientist who have been studying the behaviour of the Orcas for some years.

GTOA are concerned about the health of the small endangered Gibraltar Strait orca population (being around 50 individuals) and responded quickly to provide useful information to the boating community when this problem first appeared. The Cruising Association is also concerned at the plight of this endangered population, but both organisations have agreed that further work is required to protect the interests of small boats without further harming the orcas. It is obvious that a harmless solution to the problem will be to the benefit of boaters and orcas alike.

The collaboration is intended to assist with and expand the existing study by improving communication with the boating community and enhancing research to learn lessons that will assist crews to avoid interactions with orcas, or reduce the impact on their boats if an interaction occurs.

Current advice

Current advice appears below and this will be updated from time to time as patterns emerge.

Orca conservation and management

GTOA publishes information about the conservation and management of orcas in the Iberian Peninsula on their website www.orcaiberica.org. This site also provides monthly location maps of the locations and specific dates of interactions with boats which can be used to determine when greatest risk occurs in various parts of the affected area. This illustrates the movement of orcas following tuna migration, although at least one pod does stay near the Strait of Gibraltar longer whilst most follow the main tuna migration North. There is, therefore no absolutely defined predictable location of interaction events from month to month. However, a pattern can clearly be seen and that can be used to plan the timing of a passage within the affected area to reduce the chances of an interaction.

GTOA publishes monthly interaction maps here.

GTOA also publishes a traffic light map here showing the likelihood of experiencing interactions in different areas along the West and Southern Atlantic coasts of the Iberian Peninsula.

In 2021 the frequency of such interactions led the Spanish authorities to declare no sail zones off A Coruna and Barbate for yachts below 15m. Details of these restrictions have been published on www.orcaiberica.org.

How can the boating community help us?

By widening the gathering of information we can search for any factors that might be useful in reducing the risk of an interaction. As well as seeking reports of interactions we request reports on uneventful passages through the worst affected areas at peak periods as defined below.

Recording and reporting the position, timing and other factors relating to interactions and looking at the same information from reports of uneventful passages through affected areas at peak periods will allow us to examine what factors might increase or decrease chances of an interaction. With this information we hope to be able to improve advice on passage planning.

In the interaction report forms we ask what steps have been taken to successfully or unsuccessfully deter or halt an interaction and that will be used to provide and update advice on safe and legal actions to take in the event of an interaction. Anyone can review information submitted within the report databases using the links provided below - which will be live from Tuesday 14 June 2022. No personal information will be displayed in these web pages.

Reporting an orca interaction

The interaction report forms will be forwarded to CEMMA (GTOA). They request personal information and contact details as they may wish to speak to skippers to learn more about the behaviour of orcas during the interaction. The CA will enter the details on a database for analysis and inclusion within an anonymised version accessible through this site. GTOA’s privacy statement can be viewed here.

Report an interaction
to the GTOA and CA

 

Please submit photo and video evidence gathered during interactions to gt.orcas.ibericas@gmail.com This will be used by GTOA to identify and track individual orcas involved. The video information will be shared with the Cruising Association to review unless you instruct otherwise. We advise keeping a low profile on deck when recording such evidence to minimise the interest to orcas.

Control information - Report an uneventful passage

We wish to compare data received from interactions against the same data set reported by boats on passage through the affected area without an interaction. A significant frequency of interactions has been recorded as follows, and we would be grateful to receive feedback forms from passages only in the following months within the locations shown:

June - between Cadiz and Tarifa;

July and August - between Cabo Trafalgar and Tarifa;

September - between Peniche and Faro;

October - between La Coruna and Lisbon.

Interactions do happen elsewhere during these periods but a significant concentration has occurred in previous years as described.

Report an uneventful passage
to the Cruising Association

 

Mitigation measures

This section will be updated in as evidence is gathered and analysed. Our investigations aim to establish whether factors such as sea state, depth and distance off, sailing/motoring, day/night passage and a range of other factors have any measurable impact on the likelihood of an interaction – bearing in mind that interpreting such data will be difficult without reference to data from a significant number of unaffected yachts on passage through the affected areas.

There are reports of interactions by night and day. Anecdotal tales suggest that interactions are more frequent in calm seas where engine noise or slapping hulls alert a pod to the yacht’s location, whereas the noises generated by a more vigorous sea state may drown out the noise created by a small yacht. This and other factors are as yet untested.

Interaction and Uneventful Passage reports can be viewed via the button below. Once we have received sufficient completed report forms, a statistical summary will be viewable in this location.

View reports

 

Safety Protocol

From reviewing forum posts and incorporating advice from a study by the scientists of GTOA the following measures have been recommended when an interaction occurs. Crews might follow this when safe to do so and in an order appropriate to their particular circumstances.

  • Disconnect autopilot to avoid damage and let the wheel/tiller run free. Keep hands away from wheel or tiller to avoid injury;
  • Stop the boat, de-power and drop/furl sails;
  • Contact the authorities on VHF 16 or by phone on 112;
  • Keep a low profile on deck to minimise the interest to the orcas;
  • Keep a firm hold when moving around to prevent injury in the event of ramming;
  • Take photograph or video evidence whilst keeping a low profile. Make a note of location co-ordinates and timing of the interaction along with any other relevant details including the behaviour of the orcas for future reporting;
  • After the interaction ceases wait for several minutes to allow the orcas to move away from the area before any interest is re-gained.

This protocol will be kept under review and updated when appropriate.

Some reports on social media indicate that motoring in reverse has deterred interactions but these results are not yet proven. Skippers must bear in mind that deliberately aiming a propeller at an orca is illegal. They must also know that reversing in certain sea states can be dangerous and should assess conditions before using this measure.

However, GTOA scientists believe that stopping the boat reduces the orcas’ interest and that engaging reverse gear slowly and steadily for a few minutes would allow these highly intelligent and agile cetaceans to break their routine and stay away from the propeller (2-3 knots has been stated to be effective). If the interaction persists then this measure might be abandoned, as GTOA state that the average timing of an interaction when not following the protocol is 30-40 minutes in any conditions.

GTOA is discussing this measure with the Spanish authorities and they and we will report on progress in due course, changing the security protocol if appropriate.

Reversing at high speed with erratic changes of direction in the presence of orcas will never be acceptable, but such vigorous action does not appear to be necessary to end an interaction.

This page will remain accessible to CA members and non-members alike, but we encourage you to find out more about the benefits of becoming a member of the CA family.


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The Regulations and Technical Services group (RATS) is an executive committee of the Cruising Association (CA) made up of CA volunteers. RATS gives advice and assistance to CA members and others on a voluntary basis but this is subject to the following Disclaimer and should not be regarded as a substitute for appropriate professional advice.

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