Three orcas sink a sailboat near Gibraltar in the most serious attack of 20 recorded this year

"We were sailing with the mainsail and a wind of between 7 and 8 knots when suddenly there was a loud crash.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
24 May 2023 Wednesday 22:27
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Three orcas sink a sailboat near Gibraltar in the most serious attack of 20 recorded this year

"We were sailing with the mainsail and a wind of between 7 and 8 knots when suddenly there was a loud crash. At first I thought we had hit a tall but then I quickly realized that they were killer whales attacking the boat," he explained. Werner Schaufelberger, skipper of the Swiss sailing ship Champagne (model Sun Odyssey 519), sunk at the entrance to the port of Barbate (Cádiz) as a result of the damage caused by three orcas while sailing in waters near Gibraltar.

The Champangne ​​was on a training trip for the Swiss sailing school from Tenerife to Palma, via Malaga. None of the four crew members was injured, but the incident was very violent and caused serious damage to the boat, with loss of the rudder and ruptures in the hull that caused an ingress of water that could not be removed even with the help of powerful bombs.

"The attacks were brutal. There were two smaller orcas and one larger one. The two small ones shook the rudder while the big one kept running and then he rammed the ship from the side with all his force," Werner Schaufelberger explained in statements released by the Yacht specialized page.

The sinking of the Champagne, which occurred on May 4, is the most serious case on the list of some 20 orca attacks on boats registered since the beginning of this year on the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal.

On May 22, in one of the most conflictive days of the season, the experts from the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA) received and transmitted information from "two interacting boats, one to the north of Tangier, towed, and another to the south of Barbate; while a third party enters the area and has difficulties", indicates the Facebook page of this group of scientists.

"We speak of 'interactions' because in some of the registered cases they are not attacks with breakages in the boats, but simply approaches, touches or sightings of orcas near the boats", explains Alfredo López Fernández, associate researcher at the Department of Biology of the University of Aveiro-CESAM, member of the Coordinator for the Study of Marine Mammals of Galicia (Cemma) and of the GTOA.

The arrival of killer whales to the area of ​​the Strait of Gibraltar and the rest of the peninsular Atlantic coast began this year between the end of January and the beginning of February, months earlier than in previous years. "The orcas arrive when the tuna arrive, which are their prey and food, and when they arrive, interactions with boats begin to be detected," Alfredo López explained to La Vanguardia. This year, the tunas have arrived earlier, "but we do not know the causes, which may be related to the increase in the temperature of the sea water."

The data on presence and interactions are updated, as far as possible, with the main objective of informing sailors and preventing risk situations. "The number of cases this year is beginning to be important, but we cannot say if the problem is growing because there is great variability from one year to the next," explains Alfredo López.

What is clear is that the orcas "are learning to interact with the boats, it is a cultural and imitation behavior that can be transmitted vertically in the orcas, that is, from mothers and fathers to their children, and also by transmission or horizontal learning, that is, between individuals of the same generation", indicates Alfredo López.

GTOA experts have identified some 35 orcas from the Iberian orca population. At first glance, the Iberian killer whales are the same as the rest of the species (Orcinus orca) but scientific studies show that "they are a subpopulation with some details of their own, such as the eye patch or the size, smaller than that of the killer whales in the North Atlantic", explains López Fernández.