Spain has ordered small boats to keep away from part of the country’s southern coast after reports of more than 50 encounters with noisy orcas, including as many as 25 incidents in which boats had to be towed to shore.
A two-week ban prohibits most vessels 15 meters or less from sailing near the coast between Cape Trafalgar and the small town of Barbate. This is the second time in 13 months that Spain’s transport ministry has taken action to deal with a series of extraordinary encounters with orcas that have baffled scientists.
Last year’s ban applied to an area several hundred kilometers to the north. At the time, the ministry said the measure was prompted by the involvement of orcas in “several incidents in the coastal area of Galicia, mainly involving sailboats.” The authorities did not provide the exact figure for the number of boats affected.
The most recent order was aimed at preventing “further incidents with killer whales,” the ministry said in a statement. “Since March 27 – date of the first meeting [this year] – cetaceans have had 56 interactions with small sailboats, sometimes causing rudder failures. Up to 25 cases have required Spanish maritime rescue services to tow ships to port.
The order to give the area plenty of space came a day after three separate encounters with orcas were reported in the area within five hours. Two of the ships sustained damage to their rudders and had to be towed to port, according to the Spanish Maritime Rescue Service.
Reports of collisions with highly sensitive cetaceans along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts began to surface in July and August last year, with sailors sharing stories of rudders that had been smashed and boats that had been turned to 180 degrees or tilted to the side.
Describing the behavior as highly unusual, scientists struggled to explain the encounters. “These are very strange events,” cetacean researcher Ezequiel Andréu Cazalla told The Guardian last year. “But I don’t think these are attacks.” Scientists were cautious in characterizing the encounters, as the accounts did not come from qualified researchers.
Several scientists have pointed to the stress on the endangered Gibraltar killer whales as they navigate through life on a major shipping route. Food shortages, injuries and pollution have left the population on the edge of the knife, reduced to less than 50 individuals.
The timing of the encounters, which appeared to begin as ship traffic resumed after two months of reduced noise during the pandemic, led a marine biologist to speculate that orcas may express their anger as big game fishing, whale watching and the fast ferries returned to the water.
Others have linked the encounters to several rowdy orcas who may have gotten carried away while playing. “We are not their natural prey,” Bruno Díaz, a biologist at the local Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute, told The Associated Press last year. “They are having fun – and maybe these orcs are having fun causing damage.”
In October, a task force of Spanish and Portuguese experts said it had identified three orcas present in 61% of incidents and suggested that the “unprecedented” behavior could be linked to a previous “aversive incident” between the killer whales and a ship .
“At the moment we have no clear evidence of when this happened, nor can we say for sure what type of boat may have been involved, or whether the incident was accidental or deliberate,” he noted in a statement.