Climate Change / Wildlife

RYA Urges Vigilance for Orca Encounters


Orcas or killer whales in Kvænangen fjord in Norway hunting for herrings.

The RYA and Cruising Association are urging vigilance for orca encounters in The Bay of Biscay, Iberian Peninsula and Strait of Gibraltar.

As the cruising season arrives along the Atlantic coasts of France, Portugal, Spain and through the Strait of Gibraltar, the Cruising Association (CA) and the RYA is urging vigilance for potential orca encounters.

The RYA is recommending recreational boaters planning a trip in waters known to have orca present to read the advised precautions and protocols provided by the RYA and the CA. The CA’s website also hosts a dedicated orca reporting portal and provides a wide range of resources available in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

According to the RYA, around 15 of a population of less than 50 orcas have caused damage to numerous small vessels, at least four of which have sunk. The damage typically affects the rudders and crews can usually make their way to a safe port.

Be safe, be prepared

Since June 2022, the CA has been collecting and sharing reports and data on orca interactions along this area of coastline.

In early 2023 there was an escalation in interactions, and there is no reason to indicate the situation will ease in 2024.

John Burbeck, CA Orca Project team lead, stresses the need for skippers and crews to familiarize themselves with protocols to mitigate potential encounters. Burbeck says: “By being prepared and prioritizing safety and awareness, skippers can reduce the risk of meeting orca while navigating the affected waters.”

Orca off Gibraltar

Orca off Gibraltar | Courtesy of Nathan Jones via YouTube

Past behavior indicates orca typically remain around the Strait of Gibraltar from April to early July as the bluefin tuna exit the Mediterranean, before locating west and north. However, their movements vary each year, making long-term predictions challenging.

Orca locations

According to the RYA, skippers should stay informed of current orca locations, hotspots, and trends, which will aid in route planning and avoiding known danger zones. Past interaction data can be reviewed on the CA website. Monthly interaction maps completed by Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA) can also provide valuable insights to aid route planning.

In 2023, the location of orcas extended as far north as Brest in France and through the Bay of Biscay, Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar Straits, north Moroccan coast and along Spain’s Mediterranean coastline up to Marbella. During late April to October, as boats transit the affected waters, the likelihood of encountering orcas increases.

GTOA publishes other information including traffic light maps indicating the probability of encountering orca in different locations based on recent sightings and interactions. The following apps also provide up to date information:

  • GT Orcas – download at Apple Store and Google Play 
  • Orcinus – download at Apple Store and Google Play 

There is also useful information on the orca attack Facebook groups, including the most active Orca Attack Reports.

Safety protocol and checklist

The RYA advises that, before embarking on a passage, skippers should review the CA checklist and be familiar with noted risk reduction and deterrent measures. In the event of an orca encounter, it’s essential not to panic and follow the safety protocol recommended on the RYA website.

Reporting orca interactions

While the apps play a vital role in promptly reporting orca sightings and interactions, skippers are urged to also submit reports to the CA Reporting Portal. This portal facilitates the detailed monitoring orca of interactions and uneventful passages. Without these reports, critical information regarding changes in orca behavior or the efficacy of deterrent measures would be unavailable to sailors and scientists.

Skippers’ reports also feed through to the CA interaction comments library, which categorizes skipper actions, such as using noise, sand or reversing and identifies different deterrent strategies.

The CA reporting portal also publishes comparative data, presenting statistics from interaction reports and uneventful passage reports side by side.