Orca Interactions on the Atlantic Coasts of the Iberian Peninsula
Orca Encounters - Reporting Portal and Safety Guidance
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.
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. Data gathered by the Cruising Association (CA) in 2022 shows that around 73% of yachts reporting an interaction were damaged and that around 25% (one third of the damaged yachts) had to be towed to port.
After 3 years of study, scientists still do not know why around 15 orcas from a population of less than 50 are displaying this behaviour and legal means of deterring or minimising interactions are required.
In 2020 and 2021,the orca interactions predominantly took place between June to October. However, in 2022 orca activity and interactions whilst reduced did continue through the winter months.
A collaboration with Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA)
This situation is of great concern to cruising sailors located within or transiting through the affected area and there is only limited evidence led guidance available to help.
Accordingly, in 2022 the Cruising Association (CA) formed a collaboration with Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA), a group of Spanish and Portuguese scientists who have been studying the behaviour of the Orcas for some years and who had provided guidance in respect of this problem since 2020.
GTOA is concerned about the health of the small and endangered Gibraltar Strait orca population (being less than 50 individuals and apparently in decline). They responded quickly to provide useful information to the boating community when this problem first appeared.
The CA is also concerned at the plight of this endangered population, but both organisations agreed that further work is urgently required to protect sailors on small boats without further harming the orcas. In 2022 two yachts were sunk and in May 2023 a yacht sunk off Barbate, Spain following an interaction with orcas. No crew members were harmed but the need for a solution to benefit sailors and orcas alike is more imperative than ever.
In this collaboration, the CA has assisted with and expanded the existing study by improving communication with the boating community and enhancing research to learn lessons that will assist crews to avoid interactions and reduce the impact on their boats if an interaction occurs.
The CA receives detailed reports from interactions, as well as reports from yachts sailing without incident through the affected area during a period of interaction activity (an 'uneventful passage’). This enables comparison of data from interactions against uneventful passages (‘control group’) to see if any patterns emerge.
The report form requests skippers to provide a narrative of the interaction, including: How did the orcas behave? How did skippers react to the interaction and how did that response affect the interaction? These anonymised reports, including skippers’ comments are publicly accessible and allow the CA, GTOA and other interested parties to analyse common factors that may impact or deter an interaction and minimise or avoid damage.
The comparative data can be accessed via Reports, Interaction Map and Data. This shows the data submitted from interactions directly compared to uneventful passage (‘control group’) data and enables users to look for any noticeable differences in the factors being reported between ‘interactions’ or ‘uneventful passages’. These factors include sea state/wind speed, boat speed, day/night, cloud cover, distance off land, sea depth, hull/antifoul colour, type of rudder, use of autopilot and depth sounder etc.
As more reports are received, the CA expects the comparative data will assist in passage planning to avoid orca interactions and some patterns have emerged in 2022 as detailed under Stay Safe and Risk Reduction below.
Please click on the links below to see the comparative data and all individual reports or to submit a report:
Stay Informed and Take Action
GTOA publishes information about the conservation and management of orcas in the Iberian Peninsula on their website www.orcaiberica.org and advises how to identify male, female, young and adult orcas. This website also provides monthly maps of the locations and specific dates of interactions with boats which can be used to guide where greatest risk may occur in various parts of the affected area. The location maps illustrate 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 no certain way to predict the location of orcas or interactions from year to year, and it is safe to say that interaction locations can vary widely. For instance, in summer 2022 the pattern of interaction locations was very different from previous years. In August 2021, GTOA recorded 26 interactions in the approaches to Gibraltar and just inside the Mediterranean, with none recorded west of Barbate. But August 2022 saw a very different pattern, with only one interaction near Tangier, while 33 interactions were recorded on the West coast of Portugal and Galicia, plus 5 in the Bay of Biscay. Interestingly, fishing boats in the approaches to the Strait of Gibraltar reported plentiful tuna in August 2022 but a very unusual absence of orcas.
It is, therefore, important when passage planning to keep up to date with current orca locations.
To assist, the GTOA has produced an app – GT Orcas – which displays recent orca interactions and reported sightings. It allows the user to report an interaction or sighting quickly and easily and the CA encourages skippers to submit location reports using this app in the first instance, before submitting a more detailed report to the CA when time permits. The GT Orcas app allows the user to report either at sea or after returning to land.
The GTOA will update the app with any reports of interactions and sightings found on social media and obtained through various authorities. It will also be updated with reports received via the CA reporting forms, and so will be the most comprehensive and up to date facility to help skippers plan their passage based on recent sightings and interactions.
The CA interaction map only shows past interactions and only where a full report has been received and is not updated daily. GTOA publishes monthly interaction maps, which include all CA interaction reports plus information obtained from social media and other sources. The GTOA maps are not always updated daily, so the CA recommends using the GT Orcas app for current orca locations.
GTOA also publishes a regularly updated traffic light map showing the probability of encountering orcas in different locations along the West and South Atlantic coasts of the Iberian Peninsula. As detailed on the GTOA website, the traffic light map is considered up to date for a 24-hour period.
The CA is aware of various Facebook pages which discuss sightings, interactions and also brainstorming for solutions. The CA encourages the boating community to join in the discussion. Please see Other Resources below.
However, the CA asks that whilst skippers may post information on orca interactions or uneventful passages to different platforms, they also report to the CA’s central reporting portal. The CA reporting portal is considered the central platform to monitor in detail orca interactions and uneventful passages and all anonymised reports and data summaries are accessible by all members of the public and the scientific community.
Orca Reporting - How can the boating community help?
If sailing in an affected area, please help by submitting reports if you experience an interaction or uneventful passage. Please encourage others to do so and also log interactions and sightings on the ‘GT Orcas’ app.
If your yacht is berthed in the affected area, you can help the CA to publicise the orca project and reporting protocol by downloading the poster and ask your marina to display it on their notice board. You can publicise the initiative by sharing links to www.theca.org.uk/orcas on social media.
By gathering as much information as possible, the CA and GTOA will be better equipped to identify factors that may help reduce the risk of an interaction. We can also identify which actions taken by a skipper during an interaction are effective and which are not.
The CA also requests reports on uneventful passages (‘control group’) through the worst affected areas at peak periods as indicated below in order to be able to compare interaction data with a ‘control group’.
With this information the CA hopes to be able to improve guidance on passage planning.
In the interaction report, you will be asked what actions you took to successfully or unsuccessfully deter or halt an interaction. Your input and information will help the CA and GTOA update guidance to take during interactions through the Safety Protocol.
The CA enters each report on a database for analysis, and the anonymised details are published at Reports, Interaction Map and Data and accessible for all to access. Personal information will not be displayed on the website. Before commencing a trip, please take a look at the report form so you know what information is required to be submitted for an ’interaction’ or ‘uneventful’ passage.
Report an orca interaction
The interaction report forms will be forwarded by the CA to the Coordinadora para o Estudo dos Mamíferos Mariños (CEMMA) - Coordinator for the Study of Marine Mammals - a member of GTOA. CEMMA require personal information and contact details as they may occasionally wish to speak to skippers to learn more about the behaviour of orcas during the interaction. GTOA’s privacy statement can be viewed here.
Please submit photo and video evidence gathered during interactions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The video may be shared with the CA unless you instruct otherwise.
This video will be used by GTOA to identify and track individual orcas involved. GTOA has produced an updated catalogue of the orca population and using this information has been able to identify the orcas that are involved in boat interactions.
The CA advises keeping a low profile on deck when recording such evidence to minimise the interest to orcas as outlined in the Safety Protocol below.
Control Group - Report an uneventful passage
The CA wants to compare data received from interactions against data reported by boats experiencing an uneventful passage (control group) through an affected area.
In 2022, the CA published in advance the locations where uneventful passage reports would be required during the year based upon the pattern of orca interactions experienced in the two previous years. However, as the pattern of interaction locations in 2022 was significantly different from previous years it was necessary to announce revised locations.
Therefore, for 2023 the CA will announce the locations where uneventful passage reports are required on this website and social media from time to time. Please keep an eye out for updates below.
CURRENT LOCATIONS FOR UNEVENTFUL PASSAGE REPORTS – with effect from 25 October 2023
Yachts on passage in the area between Gibraltar/Ceuta and Barbate/Tangier.
Stay Safe and Risk Reduction
The CA does not currently 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: only 1 of the first 100 reports related to an interaction occurring in a water depth of up to 20m and anecdotal evidence from social media sources would seem to support this statistic. A review of the comparative data suggests there may be a reduced risk of experiencing an interaction within 2 miles of shore and in less than 40m water depth. This will be monitored as further 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 when planning a passage close to shore.
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, advice is often shared suggesting to turn off the depth sounder and autopilot to avoid attracting orcas with the noises emitted. The CA is monitoring the data for autopilot use to see if a pattern is appearing that may suggest 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 must 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.
Other differences are present between interaction and uneventful passage data, but more reports are required to indicate that those and the factors mentioned above are statistically significant.
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 certain sea conditions and it is for the skipper to determine whether it is safe to attempt this manoeuvre.
By February 2023, 29 skippers had reported reversing during an interaction. Of those, 16 reported success and 11 reported failure in deterring the interaction. The CA is reviewing all reports and in contact with the skippers to establish whether factors such as straight line or circular reversing and speed of reversing had any effect on the success rate. The CA has updated the interaction report form to gather more information about reversing techniques. Findings will be published here.
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 9 reports received on attempting to deter orcas by making noise, 5 succeeded and 4 failed. 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 library of reports here.
NEW GUIDANCE FROM THE SPANISH GOVERNMENT: 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.
The CA will continue to publish interaction reports which will help skippers decide the best course of action.
From an early stage GTOA indicated that ‘playing dead’ would calm orcas’ adrenaline and heart rate.
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.
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. Others report that the first sign of an orca was a hit on the rudder that caused immediate damage.
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.
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. If you receive no response on channel 16 then 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 below);
- 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.
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 interest level.
The following resources provide other information and perspectives on orca interactions. Whilst these resources are provided for reference, it is important to note that the CA does not endorse or validate any specific platform:
Orca Attack Reports – this is the largest group with over 52,000 members.
There are at least 2 other Facebook groups including:
Orca Attack – Iberia
Orcas Attack Solutions
GT Orcas – supports the identification of the most active orcas and the GTOA monthly interaction maps provide information on sightings and interactions, with maps showing areas where orcas are most active via a simple reporting platform.
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