I´ve waited a relatively long time before I pick up the issue of the Orca attacks. The thing is, I am a communication pro: Half of my professional life I´ve worked in advertising agencies, started as copywriter and ended my career (somewhat half-ruined in a burn-out) as creative director/concepter. I know how this works. I know which headline makes money, I know which catchphrase secures follow-ups. With the so called “Orca problem”, to me, it kind of looks the same – aggressive media, loud headlines, maximum attention. I was hesitant, and right so, I think.

Marine Biologist Monica Gonzales

Well, this does not mean that I want to downplay anything or disrespect the people who lost their yachts or suffered damage. But something felt a bit off in the whole discussion and the picture painted. Last week I made contact with Monica Gonzales, marine biologist and international representative of “Orca Iberica”. Here´s what we´ve been talking about:

Being rational: Talking numbers

NO FRILLS SAILING.com | Lars Reisberg: “Hi Monica, first of all, thanks for finding some time to talk to me. Please, describe what your organization is about, how you work and what the aim of Orca Atlantica is.”

Monica Gonzales: “Sure: I am working for CEMMA as a coordinator for the study of marine mammals. We are an NGO working with stranded animals in the Galician coast, which is the northwestern area of Spain. We are a team of international, Spanish and Portuguese researchers and stakeholders in Orcas, who join forces to try to record and understand these cases. You see, the Iberian Orca is a unique subpopulation of Orcas that lives in the northeast Atlantic. From the Atlantic, the Orca Working Group-GTOA tries to contribute to their conservation and management. We collaborate with various institutions to zoom in updated information about it ecobiology, interactions with boats and safety. Right now, CEMMA is making a project, which is calles the “Friendship Orcas Project”, for the study of this behaviour and try to make known about Orcas. Please let me note that this project is financed by the Santander Foundation.”

Beautiful majestic animals

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “Since one or two years the “Orca problem” is a big deal in yachting magazines and the internet. To put things into perspective: How many boats are crossing the said areas annually and how many “incidents” do occur?“

Monica Gonzales: “Since 2020 we have recorded a total of 744 encounters. An encounter can both be sightings as well as interactions. Over an earea from the North African coast to French Brittany. Of these, 239 are just Orca sightings, where the Orcas are observed far from the boats. 505 are interactions, which means that Orcas respond to the presence of a boat and approach, sometimes touch them. I´d say these are certainly not “attacks”, in which Orcas react to the presence of approaching boats. In some cases interactions are without any physical contact, in other cases there is contact without damage and in other cases these physical contacts cause damage that becomes serious.”

What can be done by the skipper?

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “What´s the ratio here?”

Monica Gonzales: “According to our current data, these are 19.9% of the interactions. Also, the frequency has increased between 2020 and 2021, since the events started in July 2020. But between 2021 and 2022 there was no significant increase. They change throughout times and areas.“

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “I presume, the ratio between passing boats and incidents that produce damaged or even sunken boats is very small: Why is there such a big fuzz about the Orcas?”

Monica Gonzales: “We estimate that Orcas are touching one in every one hundred boats sailing in an area. They are interacting with all kinds of boats from 5 to 38 meters. Of those ships that got hit, 20 percent have serious breakdowns, meaning they become unable to navigate. A total of of three boats did sink. I´d say that there are relatively few incidents, but they are very relevant because they increase in security and pose a risk to navigation.”

The worst is happening (c) Augustin Drion

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “I´ve sailed the Bay of Biscay three times now during the last years and crossed the Gibraltar-area once on my way to the Canary islands: I´ve never seen one Orca – are those “incidents” really occurring more and more or is it just the media pushing the topic?”

Monica Gonzales: “Well, those incidents are very striking for the media. A war terminology has been installed that gives very good results in the headlines, I´d say. But the Orcas are going to do very badly with all that, because the irrational hatred against them increases.”

The state of research

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “What is the current state of research: How many animals or families are involved?”

Monica Gonzales: “We detected the involvement of 15 specimens, two adult females and the rest juveniles and adolescents, they belong to several families and are distributed among three to six different pods.”

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “There are a load of theories about as to why the Orcas started to engage boats: Intrusion into their living space, overfishing of Tuna, sonar/depth sound-smog and I´ve even heard that the Orca mistake the rudder bade for prey – what is your standpoint on this?“

Rudder damage. Devastating.

Monica Gonzales: “We have two main hypothesis: First, this may be self-induced behavior by the animas which means that they invented something new and do repeat it now. This behavior matches the profile of juveniles. Second thesis is that they do indeed respond to an aversive situation. That is, one or several individuals have had a bad experience and try to stop the boat so as not to repeat it, This behaviour coincides with the profile of adults. We don’t know which could be the correct one, even accepting the second one as valid, we don’t know what that triggering stimulus could have been.”

Hotspot Gibraltar Strait

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “Do you think it is possible that the younger Orcas are imitating the behavior of an older Orca?”

Monica Gonzales: “Well, it is one of the hypotheses which we contemplate. It is possible that the one individual Orca that initiated this behavior was the WHITE GLADIS. GLADIS we call the interacting Orcas. First, because she is the only adult that started in 2020 with interactions in the middle of seven other juveniles. Second, because in 2021 she had a calf and even interacted with her offspring, so the motivation that moves her to interact is even higher than the strength of the maternal instinct for protection. Third, because we know that many boats use fishing lines from the stern to fish and it is a motivation for orcas, they come to examine them. Fourth, because last year a boat carrying fishing lines caught an Orca. Fifth, because this year 2023 an Orca was observed carrying a line hanging from her body. Therefore, even though it is a mere hypothesis, we believe that there are many arguments that indicate that an incident caused by entrapment is feasible. In addition to this case, we know that GLADIS NEGRA had injuries in 2020, which could have been caused by a collision, and also injuries in 2021 as a possible anthropogenic origin. In both cases she is progressing favorably and this Orca has reduced the frequency and intensity of interactions, possibly due to changing roles in the group and not so much due to injuries.”

An Orca approaches a yacht (c) Martin Evans

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “That would mean that in a way indeed human intrusion to their habitat caused a counter reaction?”

Monica Gonzales: “Yes. They are the two sides of the same coin. There is a third, GRAY GLADIS, which we know witnessed a mate entrapment in fishing gear in 2018. All this has to make us reflect on the fact that human activities, even in an indirect way, are at the origin of this behavior.”

What can be done by sailing crews travelling the Orca-areas

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “Last time I delivered a boat in Les Sables, I spoke to a boat owner who prepared his crossing, by heaving huge plastic jars full of sand into the boat – as to emulate beach-area and get them away. One of my clients bought a “pinger” to scare the Orcas away: What is recommended by your organization when engaged by these animals?“

Monica Gonzales: “Faced with an interaction with Orcas, what GTOA proposes is to stop the boat and turn off the engine. It is a way of reducing motivation, since speed is an incentive for them. They do compete with the boat and a sailboat will never be able to outrun an Orca at speed, especially in cases of damaged rudders.”

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “What is the long-term approach, perhaps on the part of your organization, to solving this?”

Monica Gonzales: “We have proposed many things but moving governments is like trying to push a giant lazy elephant. Despite everything, something is being done. It is necessary to invest more and coordinate well among all, above all to provide information and environmental education.“

Use the safety recommendations

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “Can this danger be eliminated entirely or do we have to adapt?”

Monica Gonzales: “We do not know the evolution of these cases in the near future, but it will be necessary to investigate new boats, less noisy, maybe without rudders. Investigate in engineering how to make boats that cause less impact on the sea.”

NO FRILLS SAILING.com “From a more practical standpoint, Monica, what can a skipper do to be informed about the latest sightings/incidents and plan his passage ahead to ensure maximum safety?”

Monica Gonzales: “Sailors can consult the website and should install the GT Orcas-mobile application which can be downloaded in the Google Play Store or the Apple Store. They show current hot spots. Also, be prepared if they sail in those areas, avoid sailing at night and approach the coast, as near as possible. Remember: This is just a small subpopulation of the Atlantic Orcas, a group of some 35 specimen, living in the Atlantic waters of the Iberian Peninsula. Being such a small group, and practically isolated, they are in critical danger of disappearing.“

The research goes on

Thanks so much, Monica, for this interesting insight into your work.

(c) Title shot by Stephen Bidwell


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