Orcas’ Aggression Challenges Mariners in Spain’s Strait of Gibraltar

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Nestled in the rugged expanse of Spain’s Strait of Gibraltar, a disconcerting saga unfolds each summer that has left Spanish authorities urging caution for seafarers navigating these tricky waters. A ramming. Not of rival vessels, but of small boats by formidable orcas, the killer whales of the sea, denying their gentle moniker with disturbing regularity.

As summer descends on the waters between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Gulf of Cadiz, a recent incident paints a vivid picture of the frightening encounters mariners may face. A 50-foot boat, drifting in Moroccan waters, became the inadvertent victim of an orca’s aggression. The mighty creature rammed the craft repeatedly, damaging the rudder, spurring leaks, and eventually leading to the sinking of the boat. The panicked call for help from the two people onboard summoned Spain’s maritime rescue service and the kindness of a passing oil tanker, who plucked the distressed mariners from the water’s grip.

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In the wake of another orca-related mishap, the Spanish departments of Transport, Environmental Affairs, and the Merchant Marines have issued well-meaning advisories. The caution extends to both sailing boats and smaller motorboats, requesting them to adhere to the coastline and avoid the potential perils that await in open waters during the peak orca interaction months, May through August.

The startling degree of these encounters can be gauged by the data from The Atlantic Orca Working Group, a collective of Spanish and Portuguese researchers. They recorded 197 such interactions in 2021, with a slight bump to 207 in the following year, 2022. Such was the audacity of these marine titans that they even disrupted a sailing race last year, causing the boat’s crew to hastily drop their sails and create noise in an attempt to deter these orcas during their distressing dance of 15 minutes.

While no instances of orcas threatening swimmers have been reported, the interactions on boats tell a distinct story. Encounters seem to cease when the boats immobilize. A curious fact, suggesting perhaps a draw towards the craft’s movement or the potential thrill of the chase – still largely a conundrum to researchers.

These orcas, ranging between 16 to 21 feet in length, have taken a particular interest in an expansive arc covering the western coast of the Iberia Peninsula, reaching from waters adjoining the Strait of Gibraltar to the northwestern area of Galicia. Not quite the hefty size of their Antarctic kin that grow up to 29½ feet, but significant enough to cause a stir among the boating community and warrant a peak in maritime vigilance. As the impending summer looms, all eyes will rest on the waters off Spain’s coast, the stage for the orcas’ summer spectacle.

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Melinda Cochrane is a poet, teacher and fiction author. She is also the editor and publisher of The Inspired Heart, a collection of international writers. Melinda also runs a publishing company, Melinda Cochrane International books for aspiring writers, based out Montreal, Quebec. Her publication credits include: The art of poetic inquiry, (Backalong Books), a novella, Desperate Freedom, (Brian Wrixon Books Canada), and 2 collections of poetry; The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat, (Backalong Books), and She’s an Island Poet, Desperate Freedom was on the bestseller's list for one week, and The Man Who Stole Father’s Boat is one of hope and encouragement for all those living in the social welfare system. She’s been published in online magazines such as, (regular writer for) ‘Life as a Human’, and Shannon Grissom’s magazine.