Orcas - attacking or playing

Orcas - attacking or playing

These Orcas Eat Tuna

The fascination and concern over the Orca behaviour on the coast Atlantic coast of France, Spain and Portugal creates some heated debates amongst cruising and racing sailors – are they attacking or are they playing?

Mónica González of CEMMA

Delegates at our recent Irish Sailing Cruising Conference in Royal Cork Yacht Club were keen to hear what our keynote speaker, Monica Gonzalez had to say on the subject.

Mónica González of CEMMA (Coordinator for the Study of Marine Mammals) joined us in person from Spain.

Combine data with an understanding of a mammal's social behaviour and you have some fair hypothesise. …


Encounters … From 2020 to 2022 there were 639 encounters with orcas recorded on the Iberian coasts from the Bay of Biscay to the Strait of Gibraltar – 456 interactions + 183 sightings.

Damage … 19% of the interactions caused severe damage and the vessels required towing back to  shore.

Vessel … 80.3% were monohull yachts with an average length of 12.5m.

The stats we have are reliant on sailors sending in the date of sightings and interactions so they can compile a complete picture. GT Orca Atlántica collaborate with the Cruising Association for collating data from their membership and contacts, as well as from other cruising networks. www.theca.org.uk/orcas

GT Orca Atlanta are even looking at hull colour!  Blue is popular among Orcas!! Every piece of data helps them create a picture and an understanding of the behaviour.

Based on the stats that only 20% of boats have AIS, we can extrapolate that there is a 0.19% chance of a severe incident when navigating from the Bay of Biscay to the Strait of Gibraltar.

Pods … The larger the pod the longer the duration of interactions, until it reaches 7 plus and they spend less time with the vessel.


  1. The recommended protocol is to remain calm, quiet and reduce the movement of the boat and of your crew on deck.
  2. A recent suggestion is to go in slow reverse if safe to do so.
  3. Contact the authorities, take photographic evidence.
  4. Report the encounter (sighing or interaction) with the Cruising Association HERE.

Full protocol can be seen on the Cruising Association Orca Safety Protocol page HERE.

NB: 63% of boats that do not follow protocol have experienced interactions.


As the Orcas arrive at your vessel you may notice the following …

  • Appear silently at the boat's stern
  • Observing the rudder and vessel
  • Loud airways
  • Explosive bubbles – these may sound aggressive but they are not intended to be
  • Tail blows on the surface


They nudge the boat, change her direction even, blow bubbles to the surface and if the rudder breaks off then the fun is over and they leave.

THE BIG QUESTION – Why do they do it?

Hypothesis 1 – Amongst young whales it could be curiosity, play, dexterity, memory, communication

  • Think of a dog chasing a bicycle wheel.

Hypothesis 2 – Amongst adult whales it could be anguish, trauma, memory, prevention, communication

Consider the whales usual behaviour –

  1. they touch everything,
  2. socialise,
  3. they are curious,
  4. have an incredible memory,
  5. are skilful,
  6. they love to put on an exhibition,
  7. enjoy a chase.

Consider the repetition of the above 7 actions combined by 15 individual Orcas repeating those actions.


Remember - Orcas on this coastline eat TUNA – they are not hunting humans!

That doesn’t make it less scary or dangerous when you sail south, but it might help to give some peace of mind.


All statistics are thanks to Monica Gonzalez and the team at Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA) and CEMMA.

Mónica is currently working on a scientific study on the interaction of the orca population ( Orcinus orca ) in the Strait of Gibraltar with vessels.

Mónica González Fernández is a Marine biologist by the university of Coruña, Vigo and Santiago. Biologist of CEMMA (Coordinator for the study of marine mammals), a biometrics specialist and works in the stranding network.

She is the coordinator of the “Friendship Orcas Project”. Manages the website, interviews with people whom have experienced orca interaction, collates information, photos, videos, data and analysis the information.


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