The dark shapes briefly surfaced near the boat sailing in the darkness off the coast of northern Spain, then there was a thud, followed by a curse in Spanish.
The orcas had slammed into the hull of the Spanish ship, the Urki I, in the early hours of Monday, as the two-person crew attempted to divert their route.
But the damage was done: the rudder was broken and the Urki I had to be towed to port by a Red Cross boat.
Over the past two months, orcas have damaged a dozen pleasure craft off the Iberian Peninsula from the Strait of Gibraltar to the coast of Galicia, Spain’s northernmost point, confusing marine biologists and scientists alike. sailors.
Although there have been no reports of injuries – at least for humans – scientists and Spanish authorities have struggled to interpret the interactions.
Were they attacks? Or just friendly encounters with a very playful mammal that has gone a bit too far?
“Some people say they are playful, and they maybe are, but they play hard,” said Pete Green, director of a yacht company that had towed a boat to the Galician port of La Coruña afterwards. that an orca damaged the rudder this month.
The Orki I was one of three ships, on Monday alone, reportedly caught in clashes with orcas, also known as killer whales, according to Spain’s Ocean Search and Rescue Agency, which published videos of these meetings on Twitter.
The hulls, rudders and all three boats were damaged and had to be towed to port.
The largest members of the dolphin family, orcas are highly intelligent and social, with similar behavior to their smaller cousins. Mature orcas can be over 30 feet long and weigh six tons.
“They love to interact with moving objects, and being near a ship means riding the waves, so there is speed, there is interaction,” said Bruno Díaz López, Galicia-based biologist. and director of the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute.
“For a calf, the learning process is very important, so the game is very important,” he added in a telephone interview on Friday while cruising off the coast of northwestern France. ‘Spain.
Although little is known about their exact migration route, groups of killer whales migrate each summer from the waters off the Strait of Gibraltar to Western Europe to hunt schools of tuna, so their presence in the region is not uncommon, say scientists. Yet the frequency of recent incidents with ships and the damage they have caused are unusual.
The Spanish Ministry of Ecology said it had recorded 13 meetings since mid-August off the coast of Galicia alone.
The ministry said in an email that it believed the encounters came from a group of four to six young male killer whales, who mostly approached medium-sized vessels and always close to shore.
Victoria Morris, a 23-year-old biology graduate, was crewed on a 46-foot sailboat in the Strait of Gibraltar in July when nine orcas surrounded her ship. In an interview with The Guardian, she said she went to get some things under the bridge, because she thought the orcas would capsize the boat. “The noise was really scary,” she says. “It was so loud we had to scream.
Since then, nearly a dozen ships have encountered orcas, and sailors have described how the interactions made them think the mammals were trying to lift their boats.
Also in July, Nick Giles was sailing at night when a sudden blow “like a hammer” rocked his boat, he told The Guardian. He said his ship had been pushed for 15 minutes without being able to steer before the orcas swam in.
Weeks later, members of a Spanish Navy sailing crew saw the rudder of their ship partially dislocated by two orcas, in another tense encounter.
Salvamento Marítimo, the Spanish agency for search and rescue at sea, has since urged ships to stay away orcas.
As scientists and Spanish authorities continue to investigate the phenomenon, Mr Díaz López said it could be someone else’s problem as the orcas have migrated north to the Bay of Biscay off the coasts of western France. “Let’s see if they cause damage in French waters soon,” he said.