According to data published on the Orca Atlântica Working Group (GTOA) website, the unique population that lives in the northeast Atlantic had 52 interactions recorded between July and November 2020 between the Strait of Gibraltar and Galicia.
“Two new cases were registered in January 2021 on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and in the Strait of Gibraltar, showing the persistence of this new behaviour over time, reaching 197 interactions. In 2022, 207 interactions were recorded”.
According to the GTOA, these contacts are considered an interaction when the animals fix their attention on the boat, maintaining direct contact, that is, when they approach, observe or touch the vessel.
In 2020, this new behaviour was observed when some young orcas interacted mainly with sailboats, but there were also cases of interaction with fishing boats and inflatables.
"Orcas have been reported to have touched, pushed and even turned the vessels, which in some cases resulted in damage to the rudders", indicates the website.
Last week, a pod of orcas repeatedly rammed a yacht in the Straits of Gibraltar, damaging it enough to require Spanish rescuers to come to the aid of its four crew.
Spain's maritime rescue service said orcas repeatedly collided with the 20-metre Mustique, which was sailing under the British flag, late on Wednesday, rendering its rudder inoperative and causing damage to the hull.
“Rare but strange”
The team of Spanish and Portuguese marine life researchers studying killer whales near the Iberian Peninsula says these incidents were first reported three years ago.
According to GTOA researchers, these orcas are a small group of about 35 whales that spend most of the year near the Iberian coast in search of tuna.
There were no reports of attacks on swimmers and interactions on boats seem to stop once the vessel is immobilized.
Biologist Alfredo López, from the University of Aveiro and member of the research group, considered that the incidents are rare, but strange.
"In none of the cases that we were able to see on video did we witness any behaviour that could be considered aggressive," López told the Associated Press agency.
According to the researcher, although the cause of the behavioural change is unknown, his group identified 15 whales involved in the incidents, 13 juveniles, which could support the hypothesis that they were playing, while two are adults, which could support a competing theory that the behaviour is the result of some traumatic event with a boat.
The disclosure of all interactions and especially the sighting of orcas on the Portuguese coast was recently highlighted by specialists as essential to prevent recent incidents involving sailboats.
According to the conclusions of a conference held in March, which brought together specialists, but also sailors, it is “very important” that these sightings are reported, regardless of the authority.
Conference participants also considered the creation of an “orca alert” to be useful, which would consist of the Navy sending alerts to navigation in real time about sightings of orcas off the Portuguese coast.
The conference “Interaction with killer whales” was organized by the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests, by the National Maritime Authority and by the Portuguese Navy and came about as a result of recurrent interactions between killer whales and sailboats in the coastal zone of the Iberian Peninsula, which have already caused damage, even sinking of some vessels.
In November 2022, a French flag sailboat, with four crew members on board, sank, after an alleged interaction with orcas, about 14 nautical miles (approximately 25 kilometres) west of Viana do Castelo.