Position: 38°24’50.5″N 9°13’23.9″W
“Aleta, Aleta, Aleta, Billaroo, Billaroo, Billaroo.” The VHF awoke with an unmistakably Australian accent. Twenty-four hours into our passage, we approached our final leg to Lisbon by rounding Cape Espichel and crossing the depths of the Lisbon canyon. Dropping down to channel 72, our antipodean hailer said, “We have some American friends that passed this way yesterday and were visited by orcas. They weren’t aggressive. They just swam under the front of the boat and disappeared. Based on that, we’ve decided to stick to shallower water.”
We thanked Billaroo for letting us know and fired up the engine. Whenever orcas are spotted on the Iberian Peninsula these days, sailors go on high alert. These big black and white dolphins have been sinking sailboats for three years now. That is not how we want our adventures to end. Hundreds of attacks have occurred along the orcas’ migratory route. Starting as far north as Cape Finisterre off northwestern Spain, down to the sailboat killing grounds in the Gulf of Cadiz, no one is immune. Even the great Robin Knox-Johnson, hero of the first Golden Globe single handed around the world yacht race, had his steering broken near Vigo in northern Spain last year.
When good dolphins turn bad everyone gets upset. So upset, some sailors are literally tipped out of their sinking boats. An ocean full of sociopathic mammals sounds more like an American urban sea legend than a Spanish zoonautical problem. Just what is going on over here?
Ever since the onset of the pandemic, reports of small vessels being attacked by pods of orcas have steadily increased. Sailboats have been especially popular targets. Scientists, marine biologists, and Hawaiian Tropic models (? – ed.) are all baffled. No one seems to know how or why the orcas learned this new behaviour, but it sure has grabbed the attention of everyone sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar.
The attacks are typically carried out by the young, often encouraged by their parents. Old school vandalism. Kind of like family graffiti night back in the day. You remember. Those time when your dad rattled the spray paint cans for you and your mom showed you the best spots to tag on the local library? (We didn’t all grow up in Hyde Park – ed.)
These criminals have aliases, too. Orcas, aka Killer Whales, aka Orcinus Orca. It doesn’t matter what you call them, they are predators. Apex predators. Savages! Trust youth to redefine what apex means. Dining off the top of the food chain isn’t enough anymore, they want territorial authority above and below the waves.
Encounters range from a brush alongside, to complete degubernacularisation (rudder removal) and sinking. From the recent reports I have read, the little buggers will circle your boat and size things up. Then they’ll start bumping it. Sometimes the hull, but mostly the rudder, which they can break clean off. When one snaps away, I am sure it’s very satisfying for them, but then they lose interest and head elsewhere. Modern, spade hung rudders are particularly vulnerable to damage anyway, but I’m not sure how long our skeg would hold up against a battering from 10 metric tonnes of cetacean.
What can the well-meaning skipper do?
We humans have a fondness for marine mammals. From Flipper to Free Willy, we have woven dolphins into our popular culture. Thus, if navigation rules state when encountering killer whales we should stop our engines, we stop our engines. Then, like anxious white liberals, we wring our hands and blame ourselves for the attack. It’s not their fault, we argue, it must be payback for the horrors of Stalag SeaWorld.
But after dozens of degubernacularisations, the stop-your-engine-and-take-it-on-the-stern approach has worn thin. Good judgment suggests the best thing is to get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible. Conservationists reluctantly agree. Other deterrents like cherry bombs detonated two metres below the surface seem cruel, even if they are effective.
Other than depth charges, my favourite shoo ’em away device is an oikomi pipe. It is an eight-foot long metal pipe that you lower into the water then whack with a ball peen hammer. Kind of like tubular bells with only one note. Research in the Pacific Northwest demonstrated oikomi pipes may be useful for deterring, and even herding killer whales away from oil spills. I was all ready to rig up Aleta’s davits with one when Carol nixed it. She said people around Gibraltar had tried them to no effect. Perhaps a full octave of pipes would work more effectively? Where is Mike Oldfield when you need him?
The simplest advice is often the best. Orcas need to eat. They prefer fish to fibreglass and the tuna are out in the deep waters in the centre of the Gulf. Sticking to shallower waters seemed like sensible guidance. It didn’t involve munitions or costly modifications to the boat. And like the two hikers in the woods, we don’t have to out manoeuvre the orcas, we only have to out manoeuvre some other sailboat that didn’t get the message.
Our first sailing encounter with orcas was in the San Juan Islands many years ago. The area winds being generally unreliable, negotiating the raging current between Sucia and Matia islands at mid-tide usually demands only a steady hand on the throttle.
The whales entered the channel heading south and met us head on. Further off we could see three whale watching boats packed with envious tourists. Washington state law says you can’t go within 500 yards of a whale, and you can’t run your engine while they’re around. That makes sense on paper. After all, you wouldn’t want to put your Willy in a blender, would you? Thankfully, the law makes some provision for common sense. At least it used to. Drifting back towards the rocks off Matia’s west end I made the decision to a) leave the engine running, and b) stay off the rocks by any means necessary, including engaging the propeller. With the rest of the crew playing lookout, I was confident we wouldn’t come to a grinding halt in either direction.
So, there we were with front row seats as the pod played around our boat, diving directly under the bow and circling her for a solid half hour. Eventually, they sounded and headed off round the corner towards, where else?, Orcas Island. Suffice it to say, the orcas of the San Juans are a whole bunch friendlier than those around Spain.
There’s an App for That
In preparation for our transit through the Straits of Gibraltar and on through the Gulf of Cadiz, Carol downloaded an app and joined a WhatsApp group for real-time updates. A boat had been sunk by orcas only the night before we left, and the message boards crackled with the news. Slipping our mooring in La Linéa, Gibraltar, we nosed our way through the dense fog into the straits where the clouds parted, and the sun peeked through. The wind picked up and a glorious run past the island of Tarifa, the southernmost point on continental Europe, ensued.
Turning the corner, Carol said a research vessel was five miles southeast of Barbate observing a pod of orcas. We were around seven miles away and three miles offshore at the time. As captain I get to make the final decision on most things at sea. I could have hove closer to shore, adding an hour or two’s motoring to our passage. Or I could assume the orcas had had enough human stimulation for one day and would go off in search of dinner. I chose the latter. Besides, our ditch bag was stuffed with emergency equipment, back-up disks, and cookies. Aleta’s insurance is up to date, and we could swim the three miles if we had to. Our reward was a visit from a couple of pilot whales. Their black, orca-shaped fins made us catch our breath as they surfaced. But they lack the distinctive white racing stripe of their much larger siblings, so we relaxed.
And What of Billaroo?
Both Billaroo and Aleta passed Cape Espichel without incident. We were once again rewarded by a visit from pilot whales. We’re fond of pilot whales.
 I just made that up. Pretty clever, eh? Click on the word for further explanation.
 I coined that one, too. I’m on a roll!