RYA revises Orca (Killer Whale) guidelines

Advice to help prevent causing distress to Orcas and damage to your craft.
07 Jun 22
Killer whales in the wild

Intentional collisions by whales with recreational craft have taken place during the summer months for the last two years along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. Areas of concern include, the approaches to the Straits of Gibraltar and the Gulf of Cadiz, between May and mid-August. Frequency of incidents then increases between mid-August and October in the area from Cape Trafalgar to Gallica and Cape Finisterre. Members are, however, reminded that although frequency of incidents may change between areas during the spring and late summer there is still potential for incidents to occur anywhere along the western Iberian coast and either side of the Straits of Gibraltar.   

Typically, the incidents involve Orcas bumping and spinning boats for a prolonged period between 45 and 90 minutes. Often this activity is accompanied by whales shaking and damaging rudders. The reason for this behaviour has not been determined.

Incidents involving whales colliding and damaging boats are alarming, however there is no record of an Orca attacking a human in the wild or intentionally sinking a boat. To minimise risk of injury to crew members and damage to craft the RYA has previously issued guidelines (2020) to sailors on passage between the UK and Mediterranean and following consultation with Orca experts, the guidelines have been revised. 

Members are reminded that Orcas are protected under international, EU, Spanish and Portuguese law. It is illegal to undertake any action which may harm or disturb these marine mammals.  

The Cruising Association and the Atlantic Orca Working Group are collating information on both incidents and the reporting of uneventful passages through the area inhabited by the Orcas. To learn more about this initiative or to report your experiences of sailing through the area, visit the Cruising Association website.  

As part of normal passage route planning, the RYA recommends that boat crews consult information provided by the Atlantic Orca Working Group.

Maps showing areas where incidents have occurred, or navigation restrictions can also be found on the Atlantic Working Group website.

The Local Safety Protocol, which supplements those provided by the RYA for sailors departing the UK, can be found here.

RYA Orca Guidelines 2022: Bay of Biscay to Straits of Gibraltar

As a protected species, boaters should not take any action that could cause Orcas harm. Remember as the skipper of a craft you have responsibility for the safety of your crew, protecting your vessel and adhering to wildlife protection legislation. You should consider carefully how to balance all these responsibilities before placing yourself, your craft and crew at risk. 

If you find yourself in a situation where Orcas are near your boat, then follow our advice to maintain safety whilst helping to prevent distress to the Orcas and damage to your craft.

Prior to departure:

  • Verify with your insurer that you have appropriate cover for wildlife damage and emergency towage.
  • Consider your responsibilities for crew safety and legal obligations for protected species. 
  • Undertake passage planning to avoid times and places of high risk. Do you need to risk entering an area where Orca incidents have occurred?   
  • Be aware of appropriate emergency steerage methods in the event of losing a rudder. 
  • Consider carrying spares for the repair of steering mechanisms and know the requirements for replacement parts (e.g. rudder). 

When approaching an area where there have been Orca incidents:

  • Maintain a radio watch for information
  • Keep a good look-out, particularly aft, for whales breaching or blowing
  • Keep your distance and maintain a wide berth from any whales seen
  • Take normal precautions and ensure lifejackets are worn and safety equipment is close at hand

If whales are spotted nearby (within 500m) or approach the craft:

  • Turn off engine and echo sounder
  • Disengage autopilot
  • Minimise any noise (don’t shout)
  • Be prepared to let go the wheel / helm to avoid injury

If your vessel is struck by a whale:

  • Keep noise and light to a minimum
  • Sit down to avoid being knocked from your feet and injuring yourself
  • Notify maritime authorities (see Local Safety Protocol), and
  • Remain calm and sit tight

The RYA notes that damage to steering gear reinforces the need to carry an emergency tiller.

For further information, contact RYA Environment and Planning Officer, Richard Hill: richard.hill@rya.org.uk