A British sailor has revealed how killer whales threw his yacht around ‘like a rag doll’ off the coast of Gibraltar, as experts hope tracking orcas may help to prevent attacks amid a steep rise in clashes with boats.
Captain Iain Hamilton, 60, has been left marooned in a harbour near Gibraltar for a few days after his boat, the Butey of the Clyde, was wrecked with both rudders taken off by a pod of five whales.
He said the orcas staged a ‘choreographed’ assault on the boat, but he believes they were ‘playing with the rudders, and just inadvertently rendering the boat very vulnerable and in a very dangerous situation’.
It comes as the number of vessels rescued by Spain’s Salvamento Maritimo has almost doubled so far this year compared to the whole of 2022 – with 24 sailing vessels towed in the straits of Gibraltar.
Experts are hoping that by tracking killer whales with GPS tags they will be able to prevent these attacks, the scale of which Mr Hamilton said ‘is way larger than people have thought’.
A catamaran which was attacked by killer whales while sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar being repaired last week
Another British sailor shared his experience of a whale stalking his boat last year as he sailed from Gibraltar to Cape St. Vincent, Portugal (file image)
The British sailor revealed his ordeal on BBC Radio 4, saying that if the whales had wanted to destroy his boat entirely, they would have been more than capable of doing so.
‘I was sailing 20 miles west of Gibraltar, noticed a fin then noticed a light bump and then a very big bump and looked round and there was a very large whale pushing along the back and trying to bite the rudder.
‘To begin with there was one big whale and four smaller whales and they were just bumping it and bumping it and then one of them managed to take off one of the rudders – the boat has two.
‘Then we lost the second rudder so we had no mechanism of steering the boat and the whales were in charge of the boat and they pushed us around like a rag doll.’
Mr Hamilton speculated that a larger female whale may have been leading the attack, with four younger orcas joining in chasing the boat ‘almost like synchronised swimming’.
‘If you were in a play park or something you would have thought that was magnificent,’ he said. ‘At the time I maybe had a different thought.’
A whale swims next to a boat in the Strait of Gibraltar last month. British sailor April Boyes shared the footage after her yacht was attacked
Approximately sixty orcas live in Spanish waters, with a concentration off the Galician coast and in the Strait of Gibraltar, where the majority of recent attacks have taken place.
Mr Hamilton said that locals had told him about 20 recent attacks near to the small fishing village, where he is now waiting for his boat to be fixed.
Following the attack on Friday, he said another wrecked boat – a 60ft catamaran – came into the harbour, and now several are awaiting repairs.
With attacks on the rise, the sailor said: ‘I think it is only a matter of time before the insurance companies say “you’re not insured” which will have an impact on the local industry.’
Mr Hamilton and others have called for work on helping boats to avoid the mighty beasts, and now the Spanish government has unveiled a GPS tagging scheme.
One of the mammals has already been tagged, Spain’s ministry for environment said, with the non-invasive GPS device embedded in its dorsal fin.
Six whales, which have been identified as previously interacting with boats, will be tagged.
Information transmitted from the tag will allow the approximate locations of whale pods to be tracked and mapped weekly so sailors can more easily avoid the areas they may be in, Olive Press reported.
It comes after reports suggested there were at least 20 orca attacks on small vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar last month alone.
Another British sailor, April Boyes, recounted her terror at being surrounded by killer whales who attacked a boat she was delivering from the Azores to Gibraltar last month.
Speaking on This Morning, Ms Boyes, 31, described the scary encounter with orcas, who continuously rammed into the vessel for over an hour off the coast of Spain.
A four-member crew were eventually able to breathe a sigh of relief as a Spanish rescue vessel and helicopter raced towards them in the middle of the night
British sailor April Boyes told how she endured a night of terror after her yacht was wrecked by killer whales that continuously rammed into the vessel for over an hour off the coast of Spain
It emerged last month that a female killer whale nicknamed White Gladis, thought to have been left traumatised by a collision with a boat, may be responsible for a number of the assaults after she taught other orcas to attack vessels.
Scientists believe White Gladis is taking revenge on boats by coaching orcas, who have already caused two yachts to sink.
They think a ‘critical moment of agony’ – in which White Gladis may have collided with a vessel or was caught in illegal fishing nets – led to her aggression to boats.
Why do orcas attack boats?
A study in Marine Mammal Science last year concluded that the attacks on small boats follow the same pattern: orcas join in approaching from the stern, disabling the boat by hitting the rudder, and then lose interest.
Experts believe orcas may be teaching others how to pursue and attack boats, having observed a string of ‘coordinated’ strikes in Europe.
Some even think that one orca learned how to stop the boats, and then went on to teach others how to do it.
The sociable, intelligent animals have been responsible for more than 500 interactions with vessels since 2020, with at least three sinking.
It does not appear to be a very useful behaviour, and is not clearly helping their survival chances.
In fact, Alfredo Lopez, an orca researcher at the Atlantic Orca Working Group, says the critically endangered whales ‘run a great risk of getting hurt’ in attacks.
Dr Luke Rendell, who researches learning and behaviour among marine mammals at the University of St Andrews, agreed the behaviour does not seem to be an evolved adaptation.
Instead, he pointed to ‘short-lived fads’, like carrying dead salmon on their heads – a sign of sociability, but not a desperate bid to survive.
The answer to the boat attacks might lie with White Gladis, an orca with a personal vendetta against boats or people.
Lopez said ‘that traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact’.
‘The orcas are doing this on purpose,’ he told livescience.com. ‘Of course, we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day.’
Like humans, the orcas have ‘sophisticated learning abilities’ that allow them to digest the behaviour of others and replicate it themselves, a study in peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation indicates.