Yacht sinks in strait after damage in orca ‘attack’

A commercial sailing yacht that was cruising through the Strait of Gibraltar sank near the Moroccan coastline after it was damaged by a group of orcas earlier this week.

Polish tour agency Morskie Mile posted about the incident that took place on October 31 on its website and social media pages.

This has come as a surprise for those studying the behaviour of the cetaceans in these waters as it comes outside of the Bluefin tuna breeding season, when such interactions with orcas are normally recorded.

On its Facebook page, Morskie Mile, said on Wednesday: “Our yacht was attacked by a herd of orcas in the early afternoon in the Strait of Gibraltar yesterday.”

“They hit the steering fin for 45 minutes, causing major damage and leakage.”

“Despite attempts to bring the yacht to the port by the Captain, crew and rescuers from the SAR, port tugs and the Moroccan Navy, the unit sunk near the entrance to the port of Tangier Med.”

“The crew is safe, unharmed and sound already in Spain.”

Orcas targeting and ramming into small sailing and fishing boats is a fairly new development over the past few years.

It is believed that one or two orcas started interacting with and subsequently damaging small sailing vessels in 2020 along the coast of Galicia and the Strait of Gibraltar.

But others have now “learnt” this behaviour with reports of similar collisions increasing each year.

Last August marine scientists recorded the first incident of an orca colliding with a sailboat in the Bay of Gibraltar.

During this incident, as reported at the time by this newspaper, the sailboat slowed down after it realised the cetacean was approaching, and only sustained external damage to the paint on the hull.

One of the reasons for orcas to venture into shallow waters is believed to be the presence of Bluefin tuna which is their main source of food.

But scientists studying the behaviour of orcas operating in the area cannot guarantee that the attacks on sailing boats are happening because the orcas are competing for food.

The latest attack on the tourism sailing yacht has come as a surprise as it has occurred months after the Bluefin tuna breeding season when they migrate from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea between April and May.

But local conservation charity, The Nautilus Project, told the Chronicle that there are still species of tuna in the Strait, in which case it is still a feeding ground for orcas.

The Nautilus Project launched a free app, Orcinus, for sailors navigating in the area to report on any orca sightings in the area.

Lewis Stagnetto, founder of the Nautilus Project, previously told the Chronicle some scientists believe the orcas are “honing their hunting skills” and practising with the boats’ rudders, while others believe fishing for tuna is “creating a pressure” for orcas to be able to find their main food source in the Strait.

In his role as a marine scientist, Mr Stagnetto has been posting videos on his social media to “bring perspective” to these interactions that have gained negative attention in the press.

“The pod that is based here in the Strait, as far as we know, there are eight or nine individuals, of which up to three of them are considered juveniles which means they are around five-years old,” Mr Stagnetto said.

“What the animals are doing is that they are playing, and remember they are apex predators that are used to hunting huge Bluefin tuna and they need to hone their skills in order to capture these tuna.”

“This is what they are doing with the boats.”

“Now I understand that from a sailor’s perspective this is a fairly scary experience but we have to keep in context what these animals are doing.”

“They are not out there to get people and it is really important that we all understand this.”

As for Morskie Mile, the company described the yacht that sunk as “the most wonderful thing in maritime sailing for all of us”.

“Long term friendships were formed on board,” the company said.

“We sailed on this yacht around the most beautiful places in Europe and the Atlantic archipelagos, trained numerous sea stewards, discovered the beautiful and the unknown, tasted Mediterranean specialties and sailed, sailed, sailed.”

“Our very good memories will be transferred to Grazie Mamma II.”

“Love for the sea always wins and the friendships remain with us.”