Watch CBS News

Killer whales attack and sink sailing yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar — again

Are orcas coordinating attacks on boats?
Are orcas coordinating attacks on boats? 06:06

A sailing yacht sunk in the Strait of Gibraltar on Sunday after an unknown number of orcas  slammed into the vessel with two people on board and caused a water leak, officials said. Both crew members were rescued by a passing oil tanker, said Spain's maritime rescue service, marking the latest killer whale attack on a boat in what has become a pattern in recent years.

The incident happened at around 9 a.m. local time in the narrow strait between Spain and Morocco that has become a notorious site of human interactions with pods of killer whales that, for reasons still not fully understood, ram into boats and at times even sink them. In this case, crew members on board the SV Alboran Cognac yacht put out an emergency call for an evacuation after they encountered orcas roughly 14 miles off the coast of Cape Spartel. 

The crew members reported feeling blows to the hull of the vessel and rudder, which was damaged by the whales, the rescue service said. The agency's coordination center in Tarifa, on the Spanish side of the Strait of Gibraltar, helped arrange for their evacuation via the tanker MT Lascaux. The tanker was able to collect the crew members from the sinking yacht within the hour, and they disembarked in Gibraltar before 10:30 a.m. They abandoned the SV Alboran Cognac, which proceeded to completely disappear into the ocean.

Anyone sailing through waters from the Gulf of Cádiz in southern Spain and the Strait of Gibraltar, either in a larger motorized vessel or a personal sailing boat, is advised to avoid certain areas that the maritime rescue service marks as potentially dangerous spots for orca interactions. The greatest threats exist between May and August, when officials say that pods of killer whales are most commonly seen in those parts of the Atlantic. 

This map shows the area around the Gulf of Cádiz and the Strait of Gibraltar where interactions with orcas are most likely to happen, based on previous years' data. Spanish Ministry of Transport and Sustainable Mobility

But previously recorded incidents suggest those dangers may be present at any time. Last October, a Polish boat touring company reported that a pod of orcas had managed to sink one of its yachts after repeatedly slamming into the steering fin for 45 minutes, causing it to leak. Last June, two sailing teams competing in an international race around the world reported frightening scenarios in which multiple orcas rammed into or pushed up against their boats or as they sailed west of Gibraltar. 

No one on board any of the vessels was hurt in those encounters, but the documented rise in confrontational behavior has researchers and sailors trying to determine why orcase have attempted to sink or capsize so many boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal. 

Some sailors have even resorted to blasting thrash metal music in a bid to deter the apex predators.

Reports of orcas interacting with humans have more than tripled in the last two years or so, according to the research group GTOA, which has documented hundreds of such incidents in the region since 2020. But some of the latest data points to possible changes in the orcas' etiquette, with the group reporting only 26 interactions in the Strait of Gibraltar and Bay of Biscay areas between January and May of this year. That number is 65% lower than the number of interactions recorded in the region over the same months last year, and 40% lower than the average number of interactions recorded in the same months between 2021 and 2023, according to GTOA.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.