Santi Villagrán, patron of the Sidialjam, he made up a story when his children were young to teach them how to radio for help at sea. He told them, between fantasy and reality, how a sailboat like the one they have was surprised by a shark attack. In the after-dinner on August 1, he was able to see how the lesson of years ago took hold. “I never thought that what was a story was going to become reality when I heard my teenage son ask for a Ede -of mayday, maximum distress signal. Only it wasn’t because of sharks, but because of killer whales ”, says Villagrán, president of the Real Club Náutico de El Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz). The collision resulted in a wreckage at the helm, a truncated vacation and a scare of those “that are told to the grandchildren”, but reveals an unusual problem of interactions between killer whales and sailing boats without known cause, but that is going to more in the Strait of Gibraltar.
A little over a year ago, in July 2020, the first encounter of a killer whale with a sailboat was documented off the coast of Cádiz. Now there are more than 140 cases accounted for by the Orca Atlantica scientific working group in the Strait and the coasts of Portugal, Galicia and even France, habitual points of the migratory route of these cetaceans. The phenomenon appeared apparently out of nowhere and there is only one certainty: that it has been increasing at times since last March – the time when mammals come to the south to hunt tuna – and above all, from June. The deputy chief of the Tarifa Maritime Rescue Center José Maraver has already counted 62 interactions in the area. In 26 of the collisions, the rescuers’ help was needed because the damage to the rudder, the shovel or the hull left the boats adrift in the middle of a maritime highway such as the Strait.
The danger of these situations has led the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (Mitma), through the Maritime Captaincy of Cádiz, to restrict the passage of sailboats of up to 15 meters between Cape Trafalgar and Barbate, in an extension approximately two to nine miles from shore. The measure is similar to the one that had to be taken in September of last year between Cabo Prioriño Grande and Punta de Estaca de Bares in Galicia, after eight vessels were also damaged by encounters with these protected cetaceans.
“We must apologize to the sailors for the restriction, but the mass of the orca [oscila entre las 1,4 toneladas de una hembra adulta a las 3,6 de un macho] at the impact speed it can cause a sailboat to turn or sink it and we would be talking about more serious things ”, justifies Julio Berzosa, sea captain of the Port of Algeciras.
Berzosa has now spent 36 years controlling the waters of the Strait and assures that he has “never” witnessed such behavior in killer whales. The marine biologist and member of the Orca Atlántica group Alfredo López also recognizes the exceptional nature of what is being experienced throughout the Atlantic front of Spain and Portugal: “It is absolutely new. You can find records of interactions, but they are specific ”. This is how he, from Galicia, joined other international experts to try to document all possible clashes. Although López and his colleagues refuse to talk about attacks on ships. “The way in which the interactions are produced denotes that the intention is not to attack, but rather a pattern related to another cause to be found out,” says Ezequiel Andréu, a researcher from Cádiz, a member of that group.
The Galician marine biologist works with two hypotheses: “That it is self-induced by orcas, that they can invent a game or behavior and reproduce it. Or that it comes from a risky situation that they experienced and that they try to stop it because it bothered them ”. Andréu supports these two theories and clarifies that perhaps it is a pattern to teach hatchlings to hunt tuna: “This shows the great capacity they have to adapt. It has been detected that they even have dialects in their behavior patterns. Centuries ago, some killer whale found it viable to snatch a tuna from a fisherman and now they all know how to do it. Now, we do not know what they achieve by interacting with the rudders of sailboats and we may never know. “
Villagrán and his children were surrounded by up to five specimens: “There were two mothers with their young and perhaps a third mother.” They became aware of their presence when, while they were sailing with motor and autopilot at the height of Zahara de los Atunes, the rudder began to turn. “They could sink a ship whenever they wanted, but they didn’t do any of that,” says the skipper. It took up to three comings and goings until they left, enough to affect the autonomous navigation system and other chain failures that prevented them from following the course they had set to Alicante.
It is not the only case. These days the boathouses on the Cádiz coast are full of sailing boats to repair. Benjamin Delahaie has been waiting since last Monday in the Puerto Sherry marina (El Puerto de Santa María) for the repair of a rudder that will cost him at least 4,000 euros. The Frenchman still claims to have the “scare” of when he was surrounded by orcas while sailing to his country.
The Orca Atlántica group collects each of the details of these encounters, in case it manages to establish a pattern that is repeated. For now, they have already released a guide of recommendations in which they ask not to block the rudder, turn off engines and probe and, above all, not to attack the animals to try to scare them away. It is foreseeable that, shortly, the approximately fifty killer whales that populate the Strait – divided into groups – will begin their migration north. In their wake, they may leave new incidents with Portuguese or Galician ships. And it also seems likely that they will not give up their interest in sailboats. “If what they are doing is successful for them, they will keep it,” Andréu ditches as a warning.