Passage planning - Spain and Mediterranean - Hazard of Orcas

A Warning to Sailors!

Over recent years an unwelcome hazard due to killer whales (Orcas) has faced sailors on passage to Spain and the Mediterranean area, and particularly in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Gulf of Cadiz and also down the west coast of Portugal. Other affected areas are between Cape Trafalgar and Finisterre. During the summer months, orcas follow the tuna migration which is often in the same North west Europe and Mediterranean passage direction taken by yachts and other craft.


This can result in confrontation between the orcas and craft on passage and is considered to be particularly dangerous for vessels under 16 metres.


Often known as 'Killer Whales', Orcas are not whales but are highly intelligent, social animals, and the largest member of the dolphin family. They can live to be 80 years old, growing up to 9.7m long and weigh up to six tonnes.

EU, British, Spanish and Portuguese law legally protect the orcas and craft are required to refrain from action which could risk crew member’s safety or harm an orca, specifically using the vessel to promote physical contact with the orcas.

How to reduce the risk of confrontation?

In an orca confrontation, the animals are mainly interested in the rudder of your boat and will often try to nudge it. This, of course could raise the issue of damage to it. If you are under way and the rudder is controlled by your steering, this will encourage the orca to use more force against the rudder, with a consequence that the risk of damage to it will increase!

The Atlantic Orca Working Group (AOWG) recommends the following action to be taken in the event of confrontation:

- STOP the boat (switch off the engine/take down the sails), switch off the autopilot and echo sounder, be prepared to leave the wheel/helm loose; if sea conditions and location allow it.

- Contact the authorities (by phone on 112 or by radio on channel 16)

- Take  your  hands off the steering wheel and stay  away  from fall or turn sharply.

any part of the boat that may


- Do not reverse your vessel. This is considered illegal by some Authorities, except in the case of emergency and always illegal when there is intent to harm an orca. Reversing would be dangerous in many open water conditions and it is for the skipper to determine whether it is safe to attempt this manoeuvre.

- Make sure that all on board are wearing Life Jackets. Ensure that other safety equipment is nearby and accessible. Keep seated wherever possible to avoid being knocked of your feet.

- Do not shout or yell at the animals, do not touch them with anything, do not throw things at them, do not let yourself be seen excessively, especially over the board of the vessel.

- If you have a camera phone, or other device, record the animals, especially their dorsal fins, to be able to have the animals identified later (individual orcas can be identified by their dorsal fin).

- Only after a while, when you do not feel pressure or nudges on the rudder, check that it turns and works.

- If you notice a fault that prevents navigation, request a tow.

- Take Note: Name of the boat, Date/time, Position (GPS/approximate).

Further Information and Passage Planning advice

The AOWG is an excellent web site which details specific maps and a great deal of information and advice regarding orca activity, including a system to warn vessels and craft of activity in the area which orcas follow. The site includes, albeit unofficial, updated 'maps' which show orca activity during the summer months. Skippers may be able to use this information to help with their passage plan through the area of orca activity and you can access their website by going to our LINKS page and then follow the link to the AOWG site.

Recent Activity

02.08.2023: Atlantic orcas 'learning from adults' to target boats.

The BBC ran an article regarding "A strange, dangerous game of targeting and ramming into small sailing and fishing boats is spreading through a population of orcas off Spain's coast."


This can be viewed on the BBC news site by clicking on this LINK.


14.05.2024: Couple’s yacht sinks after orca attack in Strait of Gibraltar.


Pair taken to safety by oil tanker after their vessel was rammed in latest of a string of incidents blamed on a small group of killer whales.


This can be viewed on The Times page by clicking on this LINK.



Request for Information


If you have experienced any confrontation with orcas in the areas as discussed above (or indeed in any other part of the World), we would be really grateful if you could get in touch with us via our CONTACT page, about your experience, and if possible include any images?



© All Copyrights to the above images are gratefully acknowledged.