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Ocean Gold

2023 - Into the Mediterranean

This season we will be transiting through 'Orca alley' into the Mediterranean.  Arkyla's new base will be La Marina de Valencia, the home to the 32nd America's Cup in 2007.  From here we will explore the Balearic islands of Ibitha, Mallorca, and Menorca and maybe visit some lesser known places such as the Columbretas Islands.  Keep checking back during the season to view our progress and cruising stories!

May:  Delivery to the Med through 'Orca Alley'

In May we will deliver Arkyla from the Algarve into the Mediterranean.  This means transiting through 'Orca Alley', the area around the Gibraltar Straits that, since 2020, has become infamous for the high number of orca 'interactions' (or attacks depending on your viewpoint) with sail boats.  Here I set out our plan to safely sail (or motor) our way into the 'sanctuary' of the Med; check back in June/July to see how we got on!

Lagos to Gibraltar

Planning a passage of least risk

The orca problem.  The best defence against an orca interaction is to avoid these potential ship-sinking (two yachts were lost in 2022) cetaceans in space or time - preferably both!  Whilst I am never a fan of sailing to a timetable, unfortunately Arkyla's passage east from Lagos to the Med is constrained by the availability of my delivery crew; as such a plan of least risk is needed to transit the Algarve, cross the Gulf of Cadiz,  pass Capes Trafalgar and Tarifa, and negotiate the narrow Straits in mid-May.  Whilst the orca are the headline threat they are not, of course, the only potential hazard; shipping, shallows, tide and weather must also be carefully considered.

Although scientists and sailors remain baffled at the reasons for this new orca fascination with disabling the rudders of small yachts (typically below 15metres, though boats as large as 24metres have been attacked), there is now a significant collection of information regarding times and locations of interactions, the behaviour of the orca during interactions, and the effectiveness (or otherwise!) of boat deterrent and defence mechanisms.

The Iberian orca feed on Atlantic blue-fin tuna which, over the spring and summer months, migrate from the Straits west and then north along the Atlantic Portugal coast to the Bay of Biscay.  Whilst this general pattern of tuna movement in no way provides any accurate predictions for exactly where orca may be located, it does give a good indicator of where and when there may be a higher chance of sightings and risk of interactions.  For initial planning, the GT Orca Atlantica smartphone app (see 'orca resources for sailors' section below) provides a simple means to view historical month-by-month reports.  Looking at the maps from May 2022, it is clear that the outer approaches to the Straits in general, and the area off Cape Trafalgar and Barbate in particular, will likely prove the greatest challenge to safe navigation during Arkyla's passage.

If there is one factor that stands out from analysis of the growing collection of reported data, it is that transiting in shallow water (less than 20metres) is the surest way to minimise any risk of orca interaction.  With the high number of recorded incidents off the south Spanish Atlantic coast in May 2022, staying shallow will be the foundation of my defence strategy.  Of course keeping to the shoal waters presents further challenges, not least the location of established tuna fishing nets and the prevalence of small, and randomly deployed, fishing pot markers - some more obvious than others!  The risk of snagging a line around keel or prop dictates that Arkyla's passage must be made in a series of hops during daylight hours only.

Orca Incidents - May 2022
Orca incidents off Barbate - May 2022

Planning strategy.  A shallow-water, daylight-hour transit strategy now forms the baseline for my route planning.  Although a delivery trip, it is also a holiday for my two crew, so I want to make overnight stops that will give them a taste of the beauty and culture of the area.  With that in mind, tentative plans are to anchor off the fabulous limestone cliffs of Ponta da Piedade west of Portimão, experience the calm of the lagoon inside Ilha de Culatra then, to avoid a direct crossing of the deep waters of the Gulf of Cadiz, stop in Spanish Mazagon.  From Mazagon we will aim for a cultural hit in Cadiz, then a stop in Barbate, before a final leg into the Bay of Gibraltar.  There are few navigational hazards as far as Culatra, though it is best to time an entrance through the breakwaters to Faro to avoid the stiff tide mid-ebb.  In keeping inshore of the fish farms between Culatra and Rio Guadiana, the greatest danger lies in the shifting shallows at the eastern end of Ilha de Culatra.  The next significant challenge is likely to come when rounding Cape Trafalgar; intent is to transit inshore of the shoal water off the cape if tide and weather permit.  As a direct consequence of the orca interactions, in past years Spanish authorities have imposed a restriction area off Barbate for yachts shorter than 15 metres in length, so a careful check of Notices to Mariners will be required.  Arguably the greatest area of danger will be rounding Punta Marroqui off Tarifa where we are more than likely to experience significantly accelerated winds off the headland.  From here to Gibraltar, we have also entered a concentrated zone of shipping; aside from the large commercial vessels exiting the Strait's shipping lanes toward Algeciras and Gibraltar, there are the fast ferries moving between Tarifa, Tangiers, Ceuta, and the ports within the Bay.

Tide, current, and weather.  Another planning factor is tide and current.  The Mediterranean is an ever-evaporating sea with a consequent constant flow of water inward from the Atlantic ocean.  There are complexities to the inflow and outflow system which consists of layers of water that have different levels of salinity.  The water in the atlantic is less salty and less dense than that of the water in the Mediterranean basin; it thereby flows eastward through the Straits as a surface layer (about 120m deep) at a speed of about 2-3 knots.  Conversely, there is a westward outflow of heavier salty water.  Additionally, the tidal flow will either speed up, or slow down the eastern flowing current depending on the phase of the tide.  If keeping close to the Spanish coast, the currents are less, but in strong easterly winds it is wise to avoid wind against current, especially around Tarifa.

Finally, in May there is often early morning fog to contend with which may impact the passage especially in the high-traffic areas where the Straits narrow.

Straits tide times

Deterrence & Defence

Defence against an endangered and protected species.  The Iberian Orca group are not only endangered, but also protected by both Spanish and Portuguese law; it is vital to remember that any actions in the event of an interaction/attack must not harm the orca.  That said, it is a captain's duty to protect ship and crew, and each skipper will likely have a differing view on applicable options in the event of danger.

Original 'official' advice was to stop the boat and sit tight until the orca grew tired or uninterested in the vessel.  With hundreds of boats disabled and two yachts sunk since 2020, many are not prepared to adopt such an inactive approach to defending their boat.  Onboard Arkyla I am in favour of an active attempt to defence, though one that will not endanger the orca.  Our arsenal of defence methods will include:

  • Pingers.  These are effectively electronic warfare against cetaceans; pingers were originally developed to deter dolphins and whales from de-predating, and running the risk of getting caught in, fishing nets.  The jury is still out as to whether these are effective or not against the orca, and it is noted that they are not legal for use in Spanish waters.  For offshore, ocean passages however, Arkyla carries two Fishteck pingers that can be weighted and towed if a threat is perceived.

  • Motoring astern.  There is evidence that motoring astern deters the orca from continuing their attack on the rudder.  Again it is noted that it is illegal to intentionally motor astern toward an orca, though it is, of course, not illegal to motor away from them!  Wind, sea state, and the ability to take in all sail will dictate if this method can be used effectively or not.

  • Deploy sand.  There is anecdotal evidence that deploying sand over the stern of the yacht stops the orca from attacking the rudder; we will carry a bucket of sand in case.

  • Making noise.  Although the official advice is to stay silent, some reports suggest that making noise (for instance by banging pots and pans, playing loud music) can prompt the orca to cease their attacks on the rudder.  If all else had failed, and I perceived a real danger of the yacht sinking, I may try this technique.

There are other, more extreme methods that some advocate in the event of an attack; I stress that we onboard Arkyla do not agree with these actions that are potentially harmful to both the orca and the wider ocean environment.  I add them here only to give a balanced account of how some skippers are currently attempting to defend their vessels:

  • Diesel.  Pouring diesel over the stern or flushing through heads.  Whilst I cannot sanction polluting in this way, there is an argument that, as a last resort activity, a gallon of diesel deliberately put overboard will be less destructive environmentally than the potential release of hundreds of gallons from a boat's tanks should a yacht sink from the orca activity.

  • Fire crackers.  Deploying fire crackers has been said to be effective in stopping attacks.

  • Turn off electronics.  This is more of a preventative measure that has now largely been discredited as having any effectiveness.

  • Fire a flare.  A yacht off the Moroccan coast reported firing a flare into the water thereby stopping an orca attack.

Orca-related resources for sailors:
  •  Community of sailors sharing information and experiences with both current and historical maps of sightings and interactions; the site gives access to associated Watsapp groups for orca-based discussion and incident/sighting reports.

  • GT Atlantic Orca. Collaborative site for scientific organisations to share information; includes regularly updated maps of interactions. 

  • Cruising Association orca update.  The CA is leading the effort to collate and analyse reports of interactions with sail yachts.

  • Cruising Association orca safety protocol.  Advice and reporting hub for any sightings, interactions, or uneventful passages.

  • ORCINUS smartphone app.  Download from the app store; provides map view of interactions coded for sightings and incidents.

  • GT Orca Atlántica smartphone app.  Identification guid and reporting app.

  • Facebook 'Orca Attack Reports' Group.  Reports and discussion forum (public group).

  • 'The Riddle of the orcas: how orcas are taking back the ocean'.  Kindle e-book pulling together many of the incidents and theories of this new behaviour by the Iberian orca.  No answers, but a handy compilation of reporting and thought since attacks began in 2020.

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