Killer whales. What’s going on

A 14-meter French sailing cabin cruiser nearly sank last Nov. 1 after being attacked by a pod of killer whales off the coast of Portugal. A growing phenomenon of killer whale assaults on boats and yachts is alarming maritime authorities, marine biologists and boaters. The history of Guia III repeats itself.

Yet another killer whale attack on a sailboat. Last Nov. 1, a 14-meter French cabin cruiser with four people on board was attacked by a pod of killer whales while sailing off the coast of Viana do Castelo, Portugal. One of the cetaceans struck the boat’s rudder, damaging the shaft and creating a waterway inside the hull. The skipper of the boat, immediately realizing the severity of the accident, immediately activated the bilge pumps. But he soon realized that the device could not handle the large amount of water embarked. At that point around 12 noon he decided to launch the mayday, which was received by the maritime service center in Viana do Castelo.

In the meantime, however, when by then the boat, filled with water, was two-thirds full, all four crew members were rescued by another passing boat. When the patrol boat “Atento” of the Portuguese Coast Guard arrived at the scene of the accident, it was able to tow the wreck into port so as to avoid any form of pollution. It ended well, but the fear on board was great.

Killer whale attacks

Killer whales – a long sequence of attacks over the past 2 years

The incident is just the latest in a long series of assaults that in recent years have seen schools of killer whales with increasing frequency assaulting sailboats, yachts and fishing boats along the coasts of Spain and Portugal. More than 200 attacks have been recorded since 2020 with the marine predators mainly targeting boat rudders. In some cases causing them to sink. This is an abnormal phenomenon especially in terms of the systematic periodicity with which it occurs and has alarmed local maritime authorities. The Spanish government has already in recent months banned navigation in parts of its coastline. And the Portuguese Coast Guard is trying to monitor the orcas by issuing real-time alerts on their location.

Two hypotheses are behind these attacks by the scientific community. Some marine biologists believe that attacks on boats are actually a form of play. In fact, killer whales do not consider us prey and have never attacked people, even when they ended up in the sea. Other scholars, however, argue that attacks are a defensive behavior. A reaction probably related to a bad experience the herd had or the fact that the boats invaded their territory interfering with their movements, social interactions or even their search for food.

Killer whale attacks

Vittorio Malingri’s boat also escaped assault

In the meantime, however, reports of these incidents are increasing, as are the concerns of boaters. So much so that web pages and social groups have been created to allow those who sail those stretches of sea to exchange information and sightings. Meanwhile, institutions and specialists have also opened an ad hoc site and are collecting as much data as possible to understand more about this unprecedented phenomenon.

Some of these recent killer whale attacks have also featured famous boats, such as Huck Finn III, a Gallant 53 by the famous sailor Vittorio Malingri. The attack, by several specimens, occurred last summer, this time on the outskirts of Gibraltar, and the crew even captured the moment of the assault on video. Malingri himself commented on the incident this way, “It was 10 minutes of biting at the rudder making the boat go around in circles, then headers, freak beating and boat out of control. In the end, however, the rudder is ok and even seems straight. At Barbate there is a dock full of rudderless boats, including production catamarans. Then most wonder why you need serious boats to sail.”

Killer whale attacks

Killer whales: Surprise and Guia III, two dramas of the past

Actually in the history of navigation, assaults on sailboats by orcas and other large cetaceans have always been there. Causing even serious consequences in some cases. Everyone remembers Ambrogio Fogar’s Surprise, which on January 19, 1978 while sailing from Buenos Aires to Cape Horn with journalist Mauro Mancini also on board was attacked by a pod of killer whales and sank within minutes. Fogar and Mancini managed to board the life raft where they drifted for 74 days without water or food before being rescued by a Greek freighter. Mancini, however, died soon after the rescue.

Only two years earlier, in 1976, another assault by a pod of killer whales sank Giorgio Falck’s famous Guia III off Southampton, England. The boat was attacked by a group of five orcas that threw themselves violently against the hull, opening a huge hole in the hull and causing it to sink within minutes. The dramatic experience and the anguished hours spent by the castaways until they were rescued are described in the intense book “Sos, the Guia Sinks” written by Giorgio Di Mola.

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