Cádiz, June 3 (EFE).- One of the approximately sixty killer whales that live in Spanish waters, especially in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Galician coast, has taken on the mission of carrying a mechanism embedded in its dorsal fin to warn of the area where they are, to help avoid impacts with sailboats that, for unknown reasons, have multiplied in recent years.
The satellite tagging of this orca has already made it possible to prepare the first of the weekly maps that the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge will carry out from now on so that navigators can be aware of where the families of cetaceans are located and avoid walk through them.
It is one of the measures with which it is intended to minimize the number of impacts of orcas on sailboats that began to be registered about three years ago and that have multiplied dangerous situations for sailboats and their crews, especially in the Strait of Gibraltar and the coast. Galician.
Twenty-four salvaged sailboats in 2023
Maritime Rescue has had to assist and tow this year, until the end of May, 24 sailboats that had problems at sea after encountering killer whales in the Strait of Gibraltar.
The number almost doubles the fourteen rescues that they had to carry out in all of 2022 and the 13 that they carried out in 2021, according to data provided to EFE by this organization, and which do not include the episodes in which the sailboats did not require their assistance.
One of the latest occurred around 10:00 p.m. on May 25, when the four crew members of a 20-meter-long sailboat sailing from Tarifa to Gibraltar warned that they had collided with a group of orcas. The boat was left adrift due to a broken rudder and with an open waterway that flooded it.
Maritime Rescue rescued the four crew members in a helicopter and towed the sailboat to the port of Barbate.
A pup game?
This is an example of the episodes that began to occur in 2020 and have been repeated since then, without the scientific community reaching an agreement to explain this new behavior of orcas: A new game of a very social animal that interacts with what is found? A revenge because a member was attacked? A training of the pups for the tuna hunt?
What does seem clear is that the killer whales are limited to giving just “a little touch” or bite to the rudder blade of the sailboats.
If their intention were to attack, the killer whales, which can weigh from two tons when they are young to seven when they are adults and usually swim at 50 kilometers per hour, could sink the boats in a second.
According to experts, they are peaceful, sociable and curious animals that have never attacked humans.
The testimonies of some skippers of the sailboats that have suffered these contacts have explained that the young orcas passed under the boats, touching the rudder, while the adult orcas lined up on both sides of the boat, as if they were accompanying a game of their pups.
A satellite marking, among the measures to change this habit
So far these interactions have led to measures such as temporarily restricting sailboat navigation in some areas. And now the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge has undertaken others to reduce these contacts and study these new behaviors of a species included in the Spanish Catalog of Threatened Species.
For this, it has undertaken satellite marking, with the collaboration of the Cetacean Conservation, Information and Study (CIRCE) platform.
“With an air rifle, a small arrow is shot with a device that has small titanium darts that remain in the dorsal fin. It is practically painless, and after a month or a month and a half the same animal throws it out”, explains Renaud de Stephanis, CIRCE coordinator, to EFE.
This entity will keep one or two killer whales with these devices over the next few months, which will make it possible to draw up maps to identify the areas of greatest and least risk for navigators.
The orcas, which visit the Strait in spring and much of the summer, when tuna transit through the area, and then travel north, move in families, so the information provided by one of them is valid for the group.
In addition, other techniques to minimize interactions are being tested with groups of experts, and actions are being promoted to deepen the knowledge of orcas’ habits and develop techniques to “re-educate” the habit they have acquired of touching sailboats.
In case of orca, motorized into shallow water
Maritime safety authorities have issued a series of recommendations to boaters in case they encounter an interaction with orcas.
Sailing, preferably motorized rather than sailed, and at the highest possible speed towards shallower waters, is the main recommendation, as well as extreme measures to protect cetaceans, avoiding behaviors that may cause death, harm, discomfort or concern to animals.
In addition, they recall the obligation of all skippers to report these interactions and ask them, whenever possible, and without neglecting “precaution and compliance with the obligations of good seafaring practice”, to take photographic records of the specimens of orca “involved in the event”.