As they approached the Straits of Gibraltar, killer whales rammed one of the boats. With Iberian orcas.
A 15-minute run-in with at least three giant mammals forced crews competing in The Ocean Race on Thursday to drop their oars and make noise in an attempt to scare off approaching orcas. No one was injured, but Jajo captain Zelmar van Beek said it was a “scary moment” in a video posted on The Ocean Race website.
“Twenty minutes ago, we were attacked by some orcas,” he said in the video. “Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudder. Watching orcas, beautiful animals, is exciting, but also a dangerous moment for us as a group.
At least three orcas approached the VO65 class sloop as Team JAJO approached the mouth of the Mediterranean on a leg from the Netherlands to Italy. A video taken by the crew showed one of the killer whales ruddering; Another video showed one of them running his nose across the surface.
Scientists have noted that orcas that have rammed or damaged boats off the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula over the past four years average 16-21 feet (5-6½ meters) and weigh more than 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms).
The behavior defies easy explanation. A team of marine researchers studying killer whales in Spain and Portugal identified 15 individual orcas – 13 of them young, supporting the hypothesis that they were playing. It may support the theory that the two adults are competitive and over-excited, and that they respond to some traumatic event by boat.
Sailors were warned of the danger.
“We knew there was a possibility of an orca attack on this leg,” said Brent Schuyl, a reporter for the Jajo team. “So we’ve already talked about what to do if the situation arises.”
Schuyl said the sails were dropped to slow the boat from a racing speed of 12 knots. The crew clamored to give Arcas a scare, but not before it fell from second to fourth in the leg from The Hague to Genoa, which is expected to come this weekend.
“When we were traveling at speed they seemed very aggressive/playful. Once we slowed down they also became less aggressive in their attacks,” he said. “Everyone on board is fine and the animals are fine.”
An ocean race involves two types of sailboats at sea for weeks at a time, with IMOCA 60 yachts competing in a six-month, 32,000-nautical-mile (37,000-mi, 59,000-km) circumnavigation of the globe. The boats were already competing with a giant seaweed flotillaA catastrophic equipment failure and a collision that knocks out the leader The decisive seventh quarter.
Although the race course skirts exclusion zones to protect known marine habitats, there have been previous encounters with whales in The Ocean Race and other high-speed regattas.
However, they usually involve boats crashing into animals, not the other way around.
One of the boats in the world leg of this year’s Ocean Race triggered its emergency alert after it struck what they suspected was a whale off the coast of Newfoundland in May; Two workers were injured in the encounter. At the start of the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco Bay, a whale was reported in the bay, and organizers were prepared to delay the race if it wandered into the race. In 2022, the start of SailGB’s $1 million, winner-take-all Season 2 Championship race on the same stretch of San Francisco Bay was delayed after a whale was spotted on the course.
In 2005, the first South African boat to challenge for the America’s Cup struck a whale with its 12-foot keel during training near Cape Town, sending the keel 75-feet into the water, injuring two crew members and removing both steering wheels.
AP sports writer Bernie Wilson contributed to this story.
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