‘Everyone’s a little nervous’: Sailors exchange tips on staying away from orcas | ET REALITY


The first time orcas appeared near his catamaran, Florian Rutsch was surprised, but prepared.

Like many who venture to the Iberian Peninsula, Rutsch had browsed Facebook groups, Telegram chats and other online platforms where sailors have been exchanging advice on a relatively recent phenomenon: How do you get orcas to leave your boat alone? ?

In May, when the crew of his catamaran, which he rents for high-end trips and retreats, encountered a pod of orcas while crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, he tried out some of those ideas. She spread sand in the water, which some sailors thought might act as a deterrent (unfounded). He then revved the engine, pulling away from the group (advice supported by the Spanish government).

The orcas left them alone. But his second encounter with the animals in November was less civil.

This time, to dissuade them, the crew also tried another idea that had crossed their mind: a selected playlist heavy metal song, titled “Metal for Orcas,” through an underwater speaker. But the animals had moved quickly, targeting the rudder and rendering the ship’s steering useless. The crew had to call for help and eventually Spanish rescue authorities arrived and towed the ship to port.

“It’s scary,” Mr. Rutsch said. “Nobody knows what works and what doesn’t.”

Since 2020, killer whales – apex predators that are the largest members of the dolphin family – have been disrupting boat travel along the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, causing enough damage to a handful to sink them. Researchers don’t know why.

Online, some have been captivated by the schadenfreude of orcas striking back at their yacht overlords, but biologists say it’s likely the curious animals have simply learned a new way to play with boats.

It’s less charming for captains and boat owners who navigate some of the world’s busiest waterways in houseboats that can be expensive to repair. A small percentage of sailboats have been affected, according to the researchers, who are still testing methods that could minimize interactions.

But until a proven solution is found, sailors are gathering, online and in person, to compare notes. One facebook groupwith 59,000 members, details accounts of interactions, while in another, Users talk about tactics.. In Telegram chats they ask for feedback on detours to avoid what has been called “orca alley.”

“People are more informed,” said Rui Alves, a former sailor who founded Orcas.pt to help sailors connect and discuss the topic. Alves says he was surprised by the popularity of the site: when he started it in October 2022, about 10 people joined. Now there are almost 2,000.

“We have local sailors, Portuguese and Spanish, and we have these sailors who come from the United Kingdom to cross the Atlantic,” he said.

More established groups like the Cruising Association, a British-based sailors’ group, have also been tracking crew accounts and collaborating with investigators. to provide updated information. “Sailors working together with the right scientists is the best way to find a solution,” Paul Lingard, a spokesman for the group, said in a statement.

“It’s the talk of the boating community,” said Emma Gore, a yachtsman who found advice from Facebook groups helpful when she encountered an orca off the coast of Morocco. “Everyone is a little nervous.”

Do any of the deterrents proposed by sailors work? Researchers are skeptical that spreading sand or changing the color of a boat’s hull (avoiding black is one suggestion) will do much good. They also warn that some of the suggested methods, such as throwing firecrackers into the water or using pingers, devices that transmit high-pitched signals underwater, could harm the animals, which are considered endangered.

According to the Cruise Association, there are plans to test an acoustic device that could deter orcas from approaching without causing them harm. And biologists are tracking the animalssome working with the Spanish government Understanding how to adjust the boat’s movements could minimize the possibility of interactions.

For now, researchers and authorities say, the only real solution is to navigate shallower waters and get away as quickly as possible during an encounter with an orca.

“The solution is to leave the area,” said Renaud de Stephanis, a biologist and coordinator of the nonprofit research group CIRCE. He is part of a project that tags orcas by satellite to better track their movements as they hunt tuna along the coast. De Stephanis said it was clear that orcas had learned to break rudders, and this year’s research suggested that not stopping a boat could minimize the animals’ opportunities to do so.

Alves, founder of Orcas.pt, said: “I think in the long term we will know where they are and we will avoid that area.” Many sailors are already taking that advice to heart and say they will stop sailing the orca lanes until a solution is found.

“I’m worried that people will resort to more drastic measures if we don’t find harmless solutions soon,” said Mr. Rutsch, the German sailor. Detours to avoid orcas could add days, or even weeks, to the trip, and shallow waters expose ships to other dangers, such as underwater rocks and fishing nets.

“No sailor really wants to hurt any orcas,” Rutsch added. “That’s the big conundrum here.”

He was tense during the Strait of Gibraltar crossing last week, he said, and took a flare and foghorn in case of another encounter.

“Fortunately this time,” he said. “Some dolphins only scared us briefly.”

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