“That’s enough, something needs to be done before lives are lost”
Orca-watch sites on social media are buzzing today after yet another ‘interaction’ with a juvenile pod ended with the sinking of the vessel involved, this time around 25 kms off the coast of Viana do Castelo.
All four crew members were rescued by another sailing boat in the vicinity, which picked up on the distress call before a search and rescue team from Viana do Castelo Life-Saving station arrived.
The four were pronounced “physically well and not in need of medical assistance”, though the trauma involved will have been significant.
Orca ‘interactions’ – as scientists studying the phenomenon like to call them – have become a new nightmare for sailing boats in southern Europe. No-one this far seems to have worked out why they are happening, or how to stop them.
Victims of these interactions tend to vacillate over whether they can be described as ‘attacks’ – but certainly some seem to think that way.
Comments on various sites today include: “How long until authorities will do something about this? Seems like a GPS tag on a few of the responsible juveniles with daily live location updates could help a lot”, to “That’s enough, something needs to be done before lives are lost” and “We are going to become food“.
There is even the potentially more worrying comment: “I have a question: I am from New Zealand. We have lots and lots of Orca. I see them all the time when I am sailing, and have had them come up to me when I was diving… but they never attack our boats. So why is this happening in the northern hemisphere? Anyone have an idea?”
This is the nub of the mystery: why is this happening, at all?
As reports early on – coincidentally during the start of the pandemic – explained these ‘interactions’/ attacks appeared to be limited to a particular pod, hailing from the Gibraltar Straits: an ‘endangered sub-population’ which depends heavily on an equally endangered prey species: the Atlantic bluefin tuna.
In the ‘early days’, scientists stressed the best course of action was to focus on ‘minimising the damage to people and boats’, by giving advice to sailors on how to react when finding themselves in these situation.
This advice, (see below), has proved ‘as good as useless’ – to the point that some sailors have resorted to all kinds of much more invasive methods, desperate to save their boats.
Up until July this year, ‘interactions’ were limited to damage. The orcas’ ‘playing’ with rudders of sailing boats essentially left them stranded, but otherwise intact. ‘The worst that happened’ was a wait for rescue, and then an expensive repair bill in a foreign shipyard.
But in July that all changed: a terrified family of sailors suffered a late-night ‘interaction’ off the coast of Sines that ended with their boat taking on water, and eventually sinking.
Again, they were ‘lucky’, managing to escape with their lives. But the experience will have been terrifying – and now it has happened again.
The distress call today went out shortly after midday. The boat was sailing under a French flag. There are very few other details. A statement by Viana do Castelo Maritime Police has said it will be “issuing an advice to navigation for questions of safety”, presumably in the coming days.
Early advice on what to do if involved in an interaction:
■ “Stop the boat (take down the sails), switch off the autopilot, leave the wheel loose (if sea conditions and location allow it)
■ Contact the authorities (either by calling 112 or radioing channel 16)
■ Take your hands off the wheel and stay away from any part of the boat which could fall or turn sharply.
■ Do not yell at the orca; do not let yourself be seen “excessively”; do not throw things at them; do not try to touch them with anything
■ If you have a camera or smartphone try to take photographs, particularly of their dorsal fins as this will aid identification later
■ Check the rudder turns and works only AFTER “pressure or nudges” to it have stopped
■ If a fault is found, request a tow”.