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.
During the endurance sailing race, which was part of The Ocean Race, a crew was forced to drop their sails and make noise to scare off at least three of these giant marine mammals.
The encounter lasted for over 15 minutes and was a frightening experience for the crew, as documented by Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek in a video posted on The Ocean Race website.
Although no one was injured in this incident, it highlights the importance of understanding and respecting the behavior of these animals to prevent any potential harm to both humans and orcas in the future.
As Team JAJO approached the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea for the leg from the Netherlands to Italy, they encountered at least three orcas who began hitting the rudders of their VO65 class sloop.
Jelmer van Beek described the experience as impressive and acknowledged the beauty of these animals, but also emphasized the danger they posed to the team.
Video footage captured by the crew showed one of the killer whales nuzzling the rudder and another running its nose into the hull, highlighting the close and potentially hazardous encounter.
In recent years, scientists have observed a growing trend of orcas, which can measure up to 16-21 feet (5-6½ meters) in length and weigh more than 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms), bumping or even damaging boats off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
This behavior has been documented over the past four years and has raised concerns about the safety of both humans and orcas in these interactions.
The reason behind this unusual and aggressive behavior is still unclear, but scientists continue to study and monitor these interactions to better understand and potentially prevent any harm to both humans and orcas.
Despite ongoing research, the aggressive behavior of orcas towards boats and humans remains difficult to explain. A team of marine life researchers studying the killer whales off Spain and Portugal have identified 15 individual orcas involved in these encounters, with 13 of them being young.
This suggests that the orcas may be playing, although the fact that two are adults could support the competing theory that they are responding to some traumatic event involving boats.
Regardless of the cause, sailors have been warned of the potential hazard of these encounters and should take precautions to avoid any dangerous situations.
The sailors were aware of the potential danger of encountering orcas on their sailing route. On-board reporter Brend Schuil from Team JAJO confirmed that they had already discussed what to do in the event of an orca attack before setting out on their leg of the race.
This highlights the importance of being informed about the local marine life and taking necessary precautions to avoid any hazardous situations.
According to reports from on-board reporter Brend Schuil of Team JAJO, the crew responded to the incident by dropping the sails and slowing the boat down to prevent further attacks from the orcas. The crew also made noises to try and scare the orcas away.
Despite these efforts, the incident caused the team to fall from second to fourth place on the leg from The Hague to Genoa, where they are expected to arrive this weekend. Schuil noted that the orcas seemed more aggressive or playful when the boat was sailing at a faster speed, and calmed down when the boat slowed down.
Thankfully, no one on board the boat was hurt, and the orcas also appeared to be unharmed.
The Ocean Race is an endurance sailing race that lasts for weeks at a time and involves two classes of sailboats. The IMOCA 60 boats race in a 32,000-nautical mile (37,000-mile, 59,000-km) circumnavigation of the globe that takes six months to complete.
The race has already seen numerous challenges, including a sprawling seaweed flotilla, catastrophic equipment failures, and a collision that ultimately knocked the leader out of the competition.
Despite exclusion zones established to protect known marine habitats, The Ocean Race and other high-speed regattas have encountered whales in the past, highlighting the importance of remaining vigilant and taking necessary precautions to avoid any potential hazards.
While interactions between boats and marine animals, such as whales, have occurred in the past, they typically involve boats crashing into the animals rather than the other way around.
The recent incidents involving orcas bumping into boats during The Ocean Race is a unique and concerning behavior that scientists are working to better understand. It is crucial for sailors to be aware of and respect the marine life inhabiting the waters in which they are racing to prevent any harm to both humans and animals.
Incidents of boats colliding with marine animals, particularly whales, have occurred in the past in various sailing competitions.
In May of this year, a boat in the around-the-world portion of The Ocean Race hit what was suspected to be a whale off the coast of Newfoundland, resulting in injuries to two crew members.
During the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay, organizers were prepared to delay a race if a whale was spotted on the course, and in 2022, the start of SailGP’s $1 million, winner-take-all Season 2 championship race on the same area of San Francisco Bay was delayed due to a whale sighting on the course.
These incidents highlight the need for sailors and organizers to remain vigilant and take necessary precautions to protect both humans and marine animals in these competitions.
Boats colliding with marine animals is not a new phenomenon in sailing competitions. In 2005, while training near Cape Town, the first South African yacht to challenge for the America’s Cup hit a whale with its 12-foot keel.
The collision caused the 75-foot sloop to stop abruptly, injuring two crew members and breaking both steering wheels. This incident highlights the potential danger of boats operating in waters that are also home to marine animals, and the importance of being aware of and taking necessary precautions to avoid any potential hazards.