Orcas Sink Another Boat Near Iberia, Worrying Sailors Before Summer

Summer is on the way, meaning that the orcas are out to play near the Strait of Gibraltar — which is bad news for sailors.

Two people were rescued on Sunday after an attack by a group of orcas caused enough damage to sink their boat, according to the Spanish maritime rescue service. It was the fifth such sinking in waters off the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa in recent years.

The Alboran Cognac, a sailing yacht about 50 feet long, was approached by the animals on Sunday morning, some 14 miles off Cape Spartel in Morocco, the rescue service said. Crew members onboard reported that the animals had slammed the hull, damaged the rudder and caused a leak.

A nearby oil tanker quickly maneuvered toward the boat and evacuated the two sailors, who were taken to Gibraltar, the rescue service said. The boat was left adrift, and the Moroccan authorities reported that it eventually sank.

It’s the first boat to sink in those waters this year after an orca-related mishap. A group of orcas that traverse the Strait of Gibraltar and nearby waters has plagued sailors and intrigued marine biologists, who are studying the population. Since 2020, orcas have disrupted dozens of sailing journeys in these high-traffic waters, in some cases slamming vessels hard enough to cause critical damage.

Last November, orcas slammed a yacht’s rudder for 45 minutes, causing its crew to abandon the vessel, which sank near the Tanger Med port.

The rudder of a ship that was damaged by orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar last year.Credit…Jorge Guerrero/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The group is more likely to appear in the busy lanes around the Gulf of Cadiz and the Strait of Gibraltar between April and August, the Spanish government said in a news release, and sailors have spotted some of the orcas there in recent weeks.

Researchers do not know why the pod is targeting boats, but they have theorized that the behavior is a form of play for the curious apex predators. The interactions have become so frequent that they are now a multinational issue, involving scientists and officials from Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Online, anxious sailors have gathered to share advice on navigating “orca alley,” and biologists are tracking the orcas’ movements and testing methods that could deter them.

In the event of an orca encounter, the government advised in its release, boats should not stop but instead head toward shallower waters near the coast.

But the number of incidents may be declining: Researchers at the Atlantic Orca Working Group said on Monday that the number of orca interactions with boats between January and May had dropped some 40 percent, compared with that of similar periods in the past three years.

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