What to do if orcas attack your boat: If you see a killer whale, 'never enter the water' and turn off your engine

Orcas keep attacking sailboats, and nobody is sure why.

Just last week, a pod of orcas spent 45 minutes ramming into a Polish yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar, according to Morskie Mile, the tour company that owns the vessel. The beleaguered company reported that its crew was safe, but the boat itself sank at the entrance of a Moroccan port.

In the past three years, hundreds of boat-orca interactions have been reported off the coasts of Portugal, Spain, and Morocco, including ambushes where the animals repeatedly rammed a sailboat and caused damage. This isn't even the first incident where the killer whales sank a boat.

The incidents all seem to come from one group of orcas in the area, and scientists still aren't sure why this behavior has become so fashionable in that pod.

Still, the flood of orca ambushes has prompted boaters and scientists to put their heads together and come up with guidelines for dealing with a killer-whale encounter.

There's no guarantee that this advice will stop orcas from damaging a boat if they're really in the mood for it, but the below guidelines can reduce the risk for vessels and their passengers.

What to do during an orca encounter

Experts say if you see any whales near you in the ocean, you should "never enter the water."

"What I always suggest to the public is, not just whales but even with [small] dolphins, never enter the water," Ada Natoli, a professor at Zayed University and the founder of the UAE Dolphin Project, told the Khaleej Times.

"Never swim with these animals because they are much bigger than us, even the small dolphins," Natoli added. "One can observe them from a kayak or paddle boat, but always refrain from swimming with them."

A person in a yellow kayak on the water paddling near an orca whale.
Orcas do not dine on humans, so if you encounter one, just keep your distance and you should be safe.Nigel Killeen / Contributor / Getty Images

Luckily, there's no recorded fatal orca attack on humans in the wild, Natoli told the Khaleej Times. They have a varied diet consisting of seals, sea lions, fish, penguins, and other whales but have never shown an appetite for humans.

That said, orcas — which can grow up to 30 feet long, about the length of two cars — can be incredibly dangerous, not just for their sheer size but also for their vicious hunting abilities.

The backs of a pod of whales are shown on the surface of the water. In the background are green mountains.
A pod of southern-resident killer whales.David K. Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research, permit number: NMFS 21238.

If you see an orca, Natoli said, you should keep a distance of about 50 to 100 meters (164 to 328 feet) and turn off your engine or, at the very least, slow down.

"Try not to approach them from the back or from the front. Stay on their side instead," Natoli told the Khaleej Times.

Moreover, if you see one far away, don't be surprised if it ventures closer.

"They are pretty curious animals, so they will, most of the time, approach the boat," Natoli added. "Usually, the public gets a chance to see them quite closely without disturbing. Us approaching them is quite different from them approaching us."

Natoli's advice lines up with guidelines published by the Cruising Association and Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica in a collaboration between boaters and scientists. Here's what they recommend if an orca approaches your boat:

  • "Disconnect autopilot to avoid damage and let the wheel/tiller run free. Keep hands away from wheel or tiller to avoid injury;

  • "Stop the boat, de-power and drop/furl sails;

  • "Contact the authorities on VHF 16 or by phone on 112;

  • "Keep a low profile on deck to minimise the interest to the orcas;

  • "Keep a firm hold when moving around to prevent injury in the event of ramming;

  • "Take photograph or video evidence whilst keeping a low profile. Make a note of location co-ordinates and timing of the interaction along with any other relevant details including the behaviour of the orcas for future reporting;

  • "After the interaction ceases wait for several minutes to allow the orcas to move away from the area before any interest is re-gained by moving off."

The webpage with the CA's and GTOA's guidelines also discuss reversing the boat, which has worked for 16 of the 29 skippers who reported using the strategy to deter orca encounters. However, reversing can be dangerous in some sea conditions. The webpage also notes that some authorities have deemed it illegal to reverse in the presence of orcas, except in the case of an emergency.

"If skippers intend to use the reversing manoeuvre (and conditions are suitable), the CA recommends doing so as soon as orcas are sighted," the website says.

Orcas are in every ocean in the world, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Because of that, orca sightings can be relatively rare or common depending on where you live.

For example, in the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, Bigg's killer whales and humpback whales were spotted on a record 75% of whale-watching outings in 2022, Go Skagit reported.

By contrast, in the United Arab Emirates, Natoli told the Khaleej Times that sightings were rare in the region, with only about one every year and a half.

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