A yacht competing in a round-the-world race was temporarily halted last week by a rogue pod of killer whales in the Straits of Gibraltar, 400 miles southwest of Madrid, Spain. While there were no injuries or damage to the boat, the crew was forced to lower sail and lost two positions in the race, according to a news release and YouTube video published by the Ocean Race.
Racing in second place through the Strait of Gibraltar, team VO65 Sprint suddenly spotted three killer whales approaching their boat at about 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 22. Recognizing the potential for a dangerous encounter, Captain Jelmer van Beekvan ordered his crew to take immediate action.
“Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders,” van Beek said in the YouTube video. “Impressive to see the orcas…but also a dangerous moment for us as a team. We took down the sails and slowed down the boat as quickly as possible and luckily after a few attacks they went away…This was a scary moment.”
According to Ocean Race officials, orcas have been ramming boats with alarming frequency this year. “In some cases, boats have been significantly damaged,” the Ocean Race press release states, “at least three to the point of sinking.”
The video, a compilation of above-water and underwater shots taken from two cameras, captures the killer whales as they surface in their rapid approach to the boat. The crew pounds the side of the boat to deter them. Two other racing yachts can be seen in the distance.
One of the orcas slows down as it nears the boat, rolls over, and then bumps and nudges the rudder several times, shaking the entire boat. After the encounter, van Beek’s team dropped from second to fourth place.
The Ocean Race is a five-month, 32,000-nautical mile race around the world. This year’s race, the event’s 14th edition since 1973, started in Alicante, Spain on January 15th 2023, and will finish in Genova, Spain this week.
On June 19, an orca reportedly slammed into a yacht in the North Sea between Scotland and Norway—suggesting that orca attacks are now occurring in areas beyond just the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. Scientists studying the phenomenon say the behavior may be a new killer whale fad or a response taught by a matriarchal pod leader who had a traumatic encounter with a boat.