A pod of orcas collided with one of the boats in an endurance sailing race as it approached the Strait of Gibraltar, the latest encounter in what researchers say is a growing trend of sometimes aggressive interactions with Iberian orcas.
The 15-minute encounter with at least three of the giant mammals forced the crew competing in The Ocean Race on Thursday to drop their sails and make noise in an attempt to scare away approaching orcas. No one was hurt, but JAJO team captain Jelmer van Beek said in a video posted on The Ocean Race website that it was “a scary moment.”
“Twenty minutes ago, some killer whales hit us,” he said in the video. “Three killer whales came right at us and started hitting the rudders. Awesome to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous time for us as a team.”
The JAJO team was nearing the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea on a leg from Holland to Italy when at least three orcas approached the VO65-class sloop. Video taken by the crew showed that one of the orcas appeared to be stroking the rudder; another video showed one of them hitting the helmet with his nose.
Scientists have noted an increase in reports of killer whales hitting or damaging ships off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula in the last four years. Mammals average 16 to 21 feet (5 to 6½ meters) and weigh more than 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms).
“We knew there was a possibility that an orca would attack this leg,” said onboard reporter Brend Schuil. “So we had already talked about what to do if the situation did occur.”
Schuil said everyone was asked to get down to business and the sails were lowered to slow the boat from a running speed of 12 knots. The crew made noises to scare off the orcas.
“They seemed more aggressive/playful when we were cruising at speed. Once we slowed down, they also started to become less aggressive in their attacks,” she said. “Everyone is fine on board and the animals are fine too.”
The Ocean Race involves two classes of sailboats at sea for weeks at a time, with 60 IMOCA boats competing in a six-month, 32,000 nautical mile (37,000 mi, 59,000 km) circumnavigation of the globe. The race is in its final leg, from The Hague to Genoa, where it is expected to arrive later this week.
The boats have already dealt with a giant seaweed flotilla, a catastrophic equipment failure and a collision that eliminated the leader from the decisive seventh leg. One of the ships in the round-the-world portion of the race set off its distress alarm after striking what they suspected was a whale off the coast of Newfoundland; two crew members were injured in the collision.
AP sportswriter Bernie Wilson contributed to this report.
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