Frequently Asked Questions

What are the orcas?
They are cetaceans of the dolphin family, in fact they are the largest dolphins. They are not whales, they are odontocetes, they have teeth and they are not killers.

What do you understand by an encounter with orcas?
When humans and orcas are present in the same place, or in the same proximity, it can be defined as a sighting or interaction.

When is an encounter with orcas a sighting?
If the orcas sail on their course without paying attention to their surroundings, or even approaching the vicinity of the ship but continuing on their way, we call this a sighting.

When is an encounter with orcas an interaction?
When the animals come into direct contact with the boat, i.e. when they approach, observe the boat and touch the boat.

Do all orcas in the world engage in this behaviour?
Only the Iberian subpopulation of orcas, although there are records of other cases of interactions in other parts of the world, they have never been so repetitive in time and space, they were sporadic cases by different individuals.

Who are the orcas interacting with the sailboats?
They belong to one of the Atlantic populations and are considered a different subpopulation, called Orcas from the Strait of Gibraltar and Gulf of Cadiz. Their closest relatives would be individuals sporadically observed in the Canary Islands and they are genetically isolated from individuals inhabiting Norwegian and Icelandic waters. It is a very small subpopulation, threatened and protected by different entities. It is considered vulnerable in the Spanish catalogue of endangered species, it has a conservation plan since 2017, in Portugal there is insufficient data for its categorisation in their red book of mammals in mainland Portugal, it is considered critically endangered by the red list of IUCN. Cetaceans in general are protected in Spanish waters by the law for the protection of cetaceans, while in Portuguese waters there are also specific law for the protection of cetaceans. Any action that is against those laws needs specific permission from the authorities.

What do they eat?
They feed mainly on tuna. NEVER cetaceans or other marine mammals.

Why do they go from the Strait of Gibraltar to Galicia?
Because they follow the tuna in spring on their reproductive migration towards the Mediterranean, just as they wait for the departure of the animals that have already reproduced on their way out to the North Atlantic in summer.

Where do they go?
When most of the big tuna have left the Mediterranean, they go along the coast of Portugal and head north and west, some of them to the Gulf of Biscay, but nobody knows where they spend the winter, we know that they do not spend the winter in Norway, Iceland, Scotland. According to photo-identification catalogues and genetic evidence.

What do they confuse the rudder with?
They don't confuse it with anything, they know what it is, how it moves and what effect it has when touched. The speed of the ship and the resistance of the rudder cause it to persist in action. Stopping the movement, stopping the engine and letting go of the rudder, to the track, causes a drop of interest for them, ceasing the interaction, in most occasions.

How long have orcas been interacting with boats?
The first interaction was recorded in May 2020 with an inflatable boat in the Strait of Gibraltar (Spain), but was recorded again and repeated more frequently over time until July 2020.

What type of boats interact the most?
At the moment, monohull sailboats of less than 15 metres in length. With a spade type rudder, also called a spade, although this is probably the most common type of rudder.

Do all interactions result in damage to the boat?
No, only 50% of the boats that are interacted with receive some kind of damage, usually to the rudder which is where the orcas concentrate most of the time. Within the boats that followed the protocol in 2021, the 53% of boats that did not have any damage to the boat was because they followed the safety protocol.

What can we do when we have an interaction?
Follow our safety protocol. This protocol has been created after collecting and analysing the testimonies of the interacted boats. When the boats stop, the animals cease their competitive interest in speed and become calmer, and although they may continue to interact for a while, usually after a while the animals themselves move away. If, on the other hand, an attempt is made to escape by speeding up the boat, on the one hand the animals are fully capable of following the speeds of most of the boats they are used to interacting with, it can even be dangerous to try to keep the boat on course, as when hitting the rudder underwater, the rudder wheel can suddenly turn uncontrollably, and it has been shown that the animals tend to hit the rudder harder, as they feel more pressure on it, and the damage to the boats tends to be greater. Orcas can be stimulated by human actions to interact with the boat, so please try to stay out of their sight and do not shout, try to hit, touch or throw things at them.

Do interactions occur at all times of the day/night?
Yes, interactions have been recorded both day and night, although more interactions are concentrated in the middle of the day.

Does speed have an influence?
The average speed of the boats interacted with is around 6 knots, which also corresponds to the average speed of this type of boat (sailing boats of less than 15 metres), although a boat has been recorded on a stationary boat, and even on a boat travelling at 25 knots.

Does the colour of the hull matter?
No, all kinds of colours have been reported to interact.

Does it matter whether you are motoring or sailing? Even the type of electronic equipment you have on?
Neither, at the moment there is no definite pattern, boats that are either under sail or motor, or both, with devices such as echo sounders on or off, are interacted.

How far from the shore should I go and where should I go to avoid interaction?
Check our maps, where we put the latest interactions.

Do killer whales attack humans?
No known direct intentional attacks on humans. In 2020, in Galicia, there were sightings on beaches between surfers without incident or even interaction on their part. These orcas do not feed on seals or anything else that would confuse humans with food.

Was there any aggression towards the orcas? 
There has been intentional and or unintentional aggression towards killer whales in the past, mostly where there have been conflicts of interest between killer whales and humans, usually when killer whales have taken prey from fishing gear. Several injuries have been observed on one particular individual that has been interacting with the sailboats, but at this time we are uncertain as to the source of these injuries. 

What immediate solutions can be provided for people who have interactions?
There are no solutions, this is a new situation for everyone, including the killer whales, which we are all dealing with for the first time. Boats must follow the recommendations of the maritime authorities in each area and at each time. There are no fool proof protocols.

Why are the killer whales being blamed if it is known for certain that they are to blame for the interactions?
There is no evidence of aggressive intent in their behaviour. Orcas cannot be accused of living in their own environment, where we are the intruders.

What mitigation measures have been taken against these interactions?
During 2020, sailing vessels of less than 15 metres were banned in the waters of Galicia, where most interactions were concentrated, and this year the same was done in the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar. In Portugal, due to the fact that most of the interactions were with small inflatable boats, which are the typical boat used for whale watching, especially in the Algarve, the ICNF recommended to avoid approaching killer whales. Radio warnings were also given through official channels of the presence of killer whales in the areas of interaction. In case of interaction, a safety protocol was designed.

Where to get more information?

Ruth Esteban, conference 2021 ECS.