Orca Interactions - Safety Information

Cruising Association and GTOA Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica







Stay Safe

Stay Informed

Emergency Numbers

  • Familiarise yourself with the Emergency Services: VHF Channel 16, telephone 112 and contact details for the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, Maritime Search and Rescue and Coastguard of the waters you are transiting, telephone: France 196 / Portugal 112 / Spain 900 202 202

Reporting Protocol

  • Whether you experience an interaction or uneventful passage, submit a report to the CA’s report database

Risk Reduction

The CA continues to collect reports but does not have enough reports to make definitive conclusions from comparing the interaction and uneventful passage reports. However, the following patterns are worth noting:

Depth/distance offshore: A review of the comparative data suggests there may be a reduced risk of experiencing an interaction within 2 miles of shore and particularly in less than 20m water depth. This will continue to be monitored as additional reports are received.

Sailing close to shore in shallower water may add risk to a passage, especially in the event of an interaction disabling the boat. The effects of wind and swell direction and tide on a disabled yacht and proximity to maritime rescue services should be considered.

Antifoul colour: The comparative data seems to suggest that black antifoul may increase the impact of an interaction and that copper antifouling may reduce that. However, there is no scientific reasoning to support this possibility. and report numbers to date do not make this a statistically significant finding.

Autopilot: On social media, some advice shared suggests turning off the depth sounder and autopilot to avoid attracting orcas with the noises emitted. The CA is monitoring the data for autopilot use to identify any potential patterns that may indicate using an autopilot could even reduce the risk of an interaction. This is not very statistically significant, but it is possible that the noise of certain types of autopilot may act as a deterrent to certain orcas. Often the first knowledge a crew has of an orca interaction is feeling an impact to the rudder, which could damage the autopilot. Skippers should decide whether to use the autopilot based upon the small and unproven interaction risk reduction suggested by the emerging reported data.

Daylight conditions: There are reports of interactions both during day and night. The statistics suggest, without a satisfactory level of statistical significance, that the chance of an interaction is marginally lower at night. However, if an interaction happens at night, a rescue will be more difficult and there will likely be fewer fishing and leisure craft in the area to assist a stricken yacht.

Deterrent Measures

Many deterrent measures are discussed on social media and mentioned in skippers’ comments in reports submitted to the CA. No reliable, legal measures are yet proven.

Reversing: Reversing in the presence of orcas is considered illegal by certain authorities, except in the case of emergency and always illegal when there is intent to harm an orca. Reversing would be dangerous in many open water conditions and it is for the skipper to determine whether it is safe to attempt this manoeuvre.

Over 30 skippers have reported reversing during an interaction. Of those about half reported success and the others reported failure in deterring the interaction. The data appears to show this tactic has been less successful recently. The CA is reviewing all reports in an effort to establish whether factors such as straight line or circular reversing and speed of reversing had any effect on the success rate.

If skippers intend to use the reversing manoeuvre (and conditions are suitable), the CA recommends doing so as soon as orcas are sighted. It has been reported that orcas who were charging towards a yacht were deterred when reverse gear was applied before they hit.

If the reversing manoeuvre is used, please submit a full report of the method (straight line or circle, fast or slow) and the orca reaction in order that the CA can establish best practice guidance. If damage was suffered, was this before or after reversing commenced or both.

Please note the comments above regarding the legality of reversing.

Motor Away: In June 2023, Spanish Ministerio para la Transición Ecológica y el Reto Demográfico (MITECO), the responsible Spanish Government department, issued new guidance in the event of an interaction.

These recommendations include, as far as safety issues allow ‘to navigate as close as possible to the coast’ and in the event of an interaction to motor away as fast as possible towards shallower waters 'until the orcas lose interest'.

GTOA has requested information from MITECO on the reasoning behind this new guidance. The CA understands that a scientist studying orcas under a contract with MITECO has undertaken many runs with orcas at sailing yacht speeds but using motorboats. He reported that the orcas did not follow for long and that very little rudder damage was incurred. The CA is unaware of the details of the trials, the types of motorboats used or their rudder configuration.

The guidance from MITECO, GTOA and the Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas (ICNF), the responsible Portuguese government department, does vary. See MITECO’s guidance and ICNF guidance.

If skippers use this tactic, they are asked to submit a report to the CA which includes the effectiveness of the method. The CA will continue to publish interaction reports which will help skippers decide the best course of action.

Stop: From an early stage GTOA indicated that ‘playing dead’ would calm orcas’ adrenaline and heart rate. GTOA sought input from a behavioural scientist who studied orcas in captivity and advised that orcas enjoy eliciting a response. They will hide from their keepers beneath an overhang in their aquarium, only to splash them when they peer over to look for the orcas. This is why the Safety Protocol's guidance is to keep a low profile in order to minimise their interest.

CA data shows that the interactions where crews followed the ‘playing dead’ protocol generally lasted longer than those who did not follow that protocol. However, research undertaken by GTOA indicates that the level of damage to the yacht is marginally less when following that protocol.

Sand: Orcas use echolocation to ‘see’ their surroundings, navigate and hunt. The CA has seen unverified reports that some fishermen throw sand in the water to create a haze to disrupt the orcas’ echolocation ‘vision’. This has been used by some skippers, one who reported using this method alongside other deterrents to deter an interaction. In April 2023 one skipper reported on Facebook that spreading 5-8kg of sand very quickly deterred an interaction. The CA cannot advise whether this is a successful measure, but it is harmless to orcas and one that GTOA consider worthy of testing. GTOA says that “the sand varies the density of the water causing an acoustic mirror effect”. Hiding the rudder behind a screen of sand while preparing to reverse or (if enough sand is carried) until the orcas lose patience may be one measure to consider. If possible, please keep a low profile when scattering sand and detail in your report form whether this worked and how it affected the behaviour of the orcas.

Noise: The use of deterrent pingers is illegal without licence but has been carried out by some skippers. A few who have reported this to the CA have confirmed failure, but it is possible these were not used in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. It is often stated that pingers are harmless to orcas and it is not the CA’s role to regulate their use. However, it is important to note why GTOA and no doubt other marine biologists do not encourage recreational sailors to use pingers.

GTOA advises that pingers can cause hearing damage, and against a background of constant noise cetaceans would have to ‘shout to speak’. Orcas have been observed to reduce the length and depth of hunting dives in the vicinity of pingers, which can have a very wide area of effect. The increased background noise can have a negative effect for all cetaceans and can cause increased collisions between whales and ships.

However, the CA has received reports of noise generated on board deterring interactions. For example, a flogging genoa and banging pots and pans on the stern rail. Out of 14 reports received on attempting to deter orcas by making noise, about half of them succeeded and the rest appeared to fail. It is possible that making noise may extend the interest of orcas and at this time the CA cannot confirm the effectiveness of this measure.

Skippers are asked to comment on any deterrent measures used in their reports, and the CA will continue to monitor those as well as statements made on social media.

To save searching each interaction report for evidence about specific actions that may impact or deter an interaction or minimise damage, the CA has extracted and collated comments from the reports where the skipper has mentioned taking specific action such as noise, use of sand, reversing. View the Interaction Comments Library.

Safety Protocol

If the skipper chooses not to follow the new guidance from MITECO or to reverse then the guidance of GTOA and ICNF is to follow their recommended ‘Safety Protocol’ as follows, which should be undertaken when safe to do so and in an order appropriate to the 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 or Coastguard phone: France 196 / Portugal 112 / Spain 900 202 202
  • If you receive no response on channel 16 then if within mobile phone connectivity use the telephone, or in the approaches to Gibraltar try the shipping control channels ‘Tarifa Traffic’ on Ch10 (or Ch67 if busy) or ‘Tangier Traffic’ on Ch69 (or Ch68 if busy);
  • Keep a low profile on deck to minimise the interest to the orcas (see note above);
  • 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 by moving off.

The Regulatory & 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.

Disclaimer: Any advice has been prepared voluntarily by the Cruising Association, its members and others and they and it have tried to ensure that the contents are accurate. However, the Cruising Association, its employees, contributors and relevant members shall not be liable for any loss, damage or inconvenience of any kind howsoever arising in connection with the use of and/or reliance on such advice, save to the extent required by applicable law.