What should you do during an orca attack? If you see a killer whale, 'never enter the water' and turn off your engine
- A whale expert told the Khaleej Times you should "never enter the water" if you see a killer whale.
- Killer whales, or orcas, can be vicious hunters and sometimes attack boats.
Orcas keep attacking sailboats, and nobody is sure why.
In the past three years, hundreds of boat-orca interactions have been reported off the coasts of Portugal, Spain, and Morocco, including attacks where the animals repeatedly rammed a sailboat and caused damage. There was even one incident where killer whales sank a sailboat.
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 attack.
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."
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.
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 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;
- "In conditions that make it safe to do so attempt to go slowly in reverse
- "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."
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.
This post has been updated. It was originally published on May 12, 2023.
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