Aggressive Orcas Set Their Sights on Elite Yacht Race

Pod of killer whales goes after boats taking part in around-the-world Ocean Race near Spain
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 24, 2023 9:00 AM CDT
Aggressive Orcas Set Their Sights on Elite Yacht Race
In a image from video provided by the Ocean Race, an orca moves along a boat's rudder on Thursday as the boat approached the Strait of Gibraltar.   (The Ocean Race via AP)

A pod of killer whales bumped one of the boats in an endurance sailing race as it approached the Strait of Gibraltar, the latest encounter in what researchers say is a growing trend of sometimes-aggressive interactions with Iberian orcas. The 15-minute run-in with at least three of the giant mammals forced the crew competing in the around-the-world Ocean Race on Thursday to drop its sails and raise a clatter in an attempt to scare the approaching orcas off, per the AP. No one was injured, but Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek said in a video posted on the Ocean Race website that it was "a scary moment." "Twenty minutes ago, we got hit by some orcas," he said in the video. "Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders. Impressive to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team."

Team JAJO was approaching the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea on a leg from the Netherlands to Italy when at least three orcas approached the VO65 class sloop. Video taken by the crew showed one of the killer whales appeared to be nuzzling the rudder; another video showed one of them running its nose into the hull. Scientists have noted increasing reports of orcas, which average from 16 feet to 21 feet and weigh more than 8,000 pounds, bumping or damaging boats off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula over the past four years. The behavior defies easy explanation. A team of marine life researchers who study killer whales off of Spain and Portugal has identified 15 individual orcas involved in the encounters—13 of them young, supporting the hypothesis that they're playing.

The fact that two are adults could support a competing, more sensational theory that they're responding to some traumatic event with a boat. The sailors were warned of the hazard. "We knew that there was a possibility of an orca attack this leg," Team JAJO on-board reporter Brend Schuil said. "So we had already spoken about what to do if the situation would occur." Schuil said there was a call for all hands on deck and the sails were dropped to slow the boat from a racing speed of 12 knots. The crew made noises to scare the orcas off, but not before it had fallen from second to fourth on the leg from The Hague to Genoa, where it's expected to arrive this weekend. "They seemed more aggressive/playful when we were sailing at speed. Once we slowed down they also started to be less aggressive in their attacks," he said. "Everyone is OK on board and the animals are also OK."

(More orca stories.)

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