Piment Rouge - Interaction with orcas off Gibraltar

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As we were approaching Gibraltar,” explains Vincent, “We checked the latest information on interactions with orcas on the GT Orca Atlantica website ( and on social media. We also reviewed the latest safety advice (described on GTOA and reiterated in Multihulls World #189 of May/June 2023): Stop the boat (sails and engines), turn off the autopilot and depth sounder and leave the helm free.

On the night of June 2nd / 3rd 2023, we came across our first group of orcas, which we became aware of on hearing them around dusk (20:45 UTC at 36°08'N 006°57'W). They circled us for 5 minutes and then headed off, leaving us relieved. The night passed without any further encounters. At dawn (04:30 UTC 36°02'N 006°13'W), a sudden impact broke the steering cable connecting the wheel to the rudder. A group of orcas was gathering close to the stern of the boat. We followed the safety instructions and called the MRCC on VHF Channel 16. We came to a halt. The orcas were attacking the skegs (mini keels protecting the propeller). When the first skeg was ripped off, an orca played with it, then a second one came in to play with the other skeg, and that also ripped off. Two other orcas appeared to be also looking for parts to tear off. After about fifteen minutes, a much larger orca, that we hadn't noticed, passed us about 150 feet away, and the group then dispersed. Following the reports we’d read, we waited a few minutes before restarting the engines and testing the rudders using the tiller. We were still communicating with the MRCC, and they encouraged us to divert to Barbate and indicated that an escort boat would be sent out to meet us within 30 minutes.

We set a course for Barbate under autopilot, using engines and headsail, with the intention of assessing the damage once in port. Despite the escort, a lone killer whale (bigger than those in the previous group) collided violently with the rudder on the starboard hull (07:10 UTC at 36°07'N 006°03'W). We repeated the procedure from the instructions while the escort boat circled us. The orca appeared oblivious to the escort boat, even moving towards it before returning to our rudders. After ten minutes or so, it moved away, but we could still see it breathing. Still able to maneuver, we restarted the engines and headed for Barbate under escort, with a crewman on each side. The orca didn’t return.

We finally arrived in Barbate, where we were welcomed, and managed to assess the damage: a broken steering cable, both skegs ripped off, one bent rudder and one twisted rudder.

Compared with previous reports, we were relatively lucky in terms of interaction times and damage sustained. Thanks to the Barbate MRCC and SALVAMAR ENIF for their reassuring response. Well done to the various media for disseminating safety instructions. When we called the MRCC, they told us that the latest instructions were encouraging us to continue on our way. Our three encounters were very different in number and size of individuals, but also in terms of impact. So we understand how difficult it is to reach a scientific consensus and establish action protocols.
Our feeling after this experience is that, in the context of the “game”, it seems that stopping is less exciting for the orcas. Groups of smaller orcas (juveniles) are less violent, and they lose interest in the boat, concentrating on the pieces they tear off. Perhaps “sacrificial false rudders” might keep them busy and reduce the material risks? The locals also advise us to sail along the coast in waters less than 65 feet (20 m) deep.

Ultimately, we didn't feel there was any aggression from the orcas. Although the blows from the biggest among them were pretty dramatic, at no time did we feel physically endangered. We think it’s important to reread the instructions before entering the zone, so as to be prepared. The biggest risk seems likely to be the ingress of water in the event of a rudder being torn off, hence the importance of calling for help as quickly as possible when the interaction begins. And of remaining calm.

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