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Sunday, May 12, 2024: New orca attacks on yacht off Gibraltar

Well over 200 incidents of orcas ramming boats, almost exclusively sailing yachts, have been reported in the Strait of Gibraltar and off the Iberian coast since mid-2020. Now there has been another serious attack: on Sunday, May 12, the yacht ALBORAN COGNAC sank in the southern entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar after being damaged by orcas. OceanCare warns: Orcas’ behavior is not a form of revenge or a deliberate attack on humans and calls for tolerance.

In the Strait of Gibraltar and off the Iberian coasts, well over 200 incidents of orcas ramming boats, almost exclusively sailing yachts, have been reported since mid-2020. The animals caused the most damage to the steering gear; the boats were then regularly restricted or no longer maneuverable. Although not as frequently, the keel and hull of the boats were also damaged.

On July 31, 2022, the first marine casualty occurred as a result of an interaction between orcas and a sailing yacht. The yacht was rammed so often and violently 11 km off the Portuguese coast that it began to sink due to the structural damage. The crew then made an emergency call and evacuated the yacht.

On November 1, 2022, a sailing yacht was encircled and rammed by several orcas approximately 22 km off the Portuguese coast. The interaction lasted around 50 minutes. Here too, after leaks in the hull and subsequent heavy water ingress, the crew was forced to evacuate the yacht and went to their life raft.

On the night of 4 to 5 May 2023, the sailing yacht CHAMPAGNE was severely damaged by several killer whales on the Spanish coast near Gibraltar and suffered water ingress. The crew was rescued by the local coastguard. The attempt to salvage the sailing yacht failed and the ship sank.

On Sunday, May 12, the yacht ALBORAN COGNAC sank in the southern entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar after an orca attack

There has now been another serious attack by killer whales: on Sunday, 12 May, the almost 16-metre-long “ALBORAN COGNAC” sank in the southern entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar after being damaged by orcas. The crew was rescued unharmed.

This is the latest in a series of incidents in recent years in which individuals from this particularly endangered orca population have damaged or capsized ships, OceanCare wrote in a statement on 14 May.

OceanCare, based in Wädenswil, Switzerland, which is recognized by the United Nations Economic and Social Council as a special advisor on marine conservation and is an official partner organization in numerous UN agreements and international conventions, has been campaigning for marine animals and oceans worldwide since 1989.

OceanCare urges tolerance towards orcas

In its statement on the latest orca attack, OceanCare regrets the plight of the two crew members who had to be rescued after their yacht was damaged by orcas and sank off the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar last Sunday, but again urges tolerance towards orcas.


Orca next to a sailing yacht on the coast
© Andrea Izzotti | Adobe Stock


“We do not believe that the orcas’ behavior is a form of revenge or a deliberate attack on humans, and it is important that it is not portrayed that way in the media,” says Mark Simmonds, scientific director of OceanCare. These intelligent and very social animals have learned that small boats can be manipulated and obviously get “some kind of satisfaction” from it.

It is probably a playful behavior or a way of showing off to each other. “We know that the authorities in the countries where this population occurs are working to develop appropriate strategies to address this problem,” says Simmonds.

Orcas do not eat humans, nor do they seek retribution by attacking yachts

Back in July 2023 – after the incident with the sailing yacht CHAMPAGNE – OceanCare commented on the Iberian orcas and their interaction with ships as follows:

  1. This is a novel behavior that could disappear as quickly as it appeared
  2. Orcas do not eat humans
  3. Orcas are very intelligent. They live in close family groups and learn from each other, forming different cultural units across the world
  4. It is extremely unlikely that the orcas seek retaliation by attacking ships; it is much more likely to be play or exploratory behavior
  5. The subpopulation in question is very small and threatened with extinction
  6. At present, no one knows exactly why this behavior has developed and how best to deal with it

It is certain that the orcas that behave so roughly towards ships belong to the Iberian subpopulation. “With fewer than 50 members, a small number of adults and a slow reproductive rate, this subpopulation has been classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List”, according to Ocean Care.

In addition, these orcas are heavily dependent on the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a fish species that is itself overfished and has become rare. Reproduction could also be affected by chemical pollution. And like other whales and dolphins in the north-east Atlantic, they are exposed to many man-made stressors and dangers, including noise, waste and bycatch.

The average ship size affected by orca attacks is 12 meters

According to observations by OceanCare, orcas “appear to interact primarily with vessels of a certain size (5-21 m, average 12 m), mainly sailboats, and here in particular with their rudders”. The interactions are “often violent, with the rudders being heavily manipulated and sometimes broken off”. As a result, the entire ship could be quickly set into a rocking motion by the animals. In four cases, this led to the loss of the boat.


Orca with open mouth (teeth)
© Elosoblues | Adobe Stock


No one knows why the orcas started this behavior. OceanCare: “Media reports that the starting point could have been revenge actions by a dominant female after an unpleasant interaction with a boat may sound plausible, but are pure speculation”. It is a new, unprecedented behavior.

Interestingly, according to OceanCare, behaviors like this, which have no apparent benefit to the animals, have been observed in orca populations before, including – perhaps most famously – “a fad where some orcas would place dead fish on their own heads”.

Such behavioral fads could appear suddenly, spread and then disappear again. OceanCare hopes that this will also be the case with the attacks on yachts.

This orca behavior is “undeniably worrying and potentially dangerous”, but it is hoped “that all who encounter orcas will continue to respond with patience and tolerance”. These interactions could also be seen as an opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures and “hopefully find ways to better protect them and live in harmony with them and treat them with respect”.


Group of orcas in the sea
© RKP | Adobe Stock


A “code of conduct” recommends stopping the boat in the event of an orca attack and letting go of the wheel immediately

If that sounds too vague for you – as a sports skipper traveling with a yacht in the affected area – there is a “code of conduct” for boaters. A team led by marine scientist Neus Perez Gimeno had developed a code of conduct for skippers due to overfishing and the increasing number of whale-watching tours as early as 2014, recommending that a plan be drawn up to protect the endangered Iberian orca population, according to

One piece of advice, for example, is to “stop the boat and let go of the wheel immediately” in the event of an orca attack. Skippers should also “not shout at or touch the animals and not throw any objects at them”. Instead, they should “photograph them so that the marine scientists and biologists from Iberian Orca can subsequently identify them”. It is also important to contact the Spanish and Portuguese authorities by calling 112 or using VHF channel 16.

More articles on the topic:

Orca attacks: Orcas – Why they attack boats (SeaHelp)

Whale experts comment on misinterpretations about the behavior of Iberian orcas (OceanCare)

Spain: Sailors shoot at orcas threatened with extinction (OceanCare)

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