A group of killer whales collided with a boat in a sailing race for endurance 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.
A 15-minute encounter with no fewer than three giant mammals forced the competing crew at The Ocean Race on Thursday to drop their sails and rumble in an effort to scare off approaching orcas. No one was hurt, but JAJO team leader Jelmer van Beek said in a video posted to 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 right up to us and started beating the rudders. Great to see orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team.”
The JAJO team was approaching the mouth of the Mediterranean on the leg from Holland to Italy when no fewer than three orcas approached the schooner VO65. Video taken by the crew showed that one of the killer whales appeared to tear off the rudder; Another video clip showed one of them running his nose towards the hull of the ship.
Scientists have noted increasing reports of orcas, which average 16-21 feet (5-6½ meters) long and weigh more than 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms), crashing or destroying boats off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula in the past four years.
The behavior defies easy explanation. A team of marine life researchers studying killer whales off Spain and Portugal has identified 15 orcas involved in encounters – 13 of them young, supporting the hypothesis that they play. The fact that two adults can support the competing and more exciting theory that they are responding to some traumatic event with a boat.
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Sailors were warned of the dangers.
“We knew there was a possibility of an orca attack on this leg,” JAJO team reporter Brend Schoell said on board. “So we’ve already talked about what to do if this situation happens.”
There was a call to all hands on deck and the sails were brought down to slow the boat from a racing speed of 12 knots, said Showell. The crew made noises to scare off the orcas, but not before they dropped from second to fourth on the leg from The Hague to Genoa, where they are expected to arrive this weekend.
“They seemed more aggressive/playful when we were cruising fast. Once we slowed down, they also started to be less aggressive in their attacks,” he said. “Everyone is fine on the ship and the animals are fine too.”
The Ocean Race involves two classes of sailboats at sea for weeks at a time, with 60 IMOCA boats competing in six months, 32,000 nautical miles (37,000 mi; 59,000 km) around the world. Already the boats faced a gigantic seaweed flotilla, catastrophic equipment failure, and a collision that took the leader out of the crucial seventh stage.
Although the racetrack cycles around exclusion zones to protect known marine habitats, there have been previous encounters with whales at The Ocean Race and other high-speed regattas.
However, they usually involve boats colliding with animals, rather than the other way around.
A boatswain in the around the world portion of this year’s Ocean Race raised the alarm after what they suspected was a whale struck off the coast of Newfoundland in May; Two crew members were injured in the collision. At the start of the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay, a whale was reported in the bay and organizers were prepared to delay the race if it wandered onto the course. In 2022, the postponed start of the season two million dollar SailGP winner-take-all race takes place in the same area of San Francisco Bay when a whale is sighted at the track.
In 2005, the first South African yacht to challenge for the America’s Cup struck a whale with a 12-foot keel during training near Cape Town, stalling the sailboat 75 feet in the water, injuring two crew members and swooping off both Steering wheel.
Associated Press sportswriter Bernie Wilson contributed to this story.
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