Galician Coastal Waters Briefly Closed to Sailboats After Orca Attacks

orca sailboat attack area
Orca closure area off Galicia (Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda)

Published Sep 28, 2020 3:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

In response to the unusual orca attacks on sailboats off the coast of Galicia, Spain's transport ministry has closed a section of its territorial seas to coastwise transits by sailing yachts.

The closure affects a strip of coastal waters extending between Ferrol and Punta Estaca de Bares, and it applies only to sailing yachts of less than 15 meters in length. Recent orca incidents have primarily affected midsize sailing vessels, according to the ministry. 

The incidents with killer whales in Spanish coastal areas began on August 19, and over the intervening weeks there have been several attacks that have caused material damage - particularly damage to the vessels' rudders. Several incidents required the intervention of Spanish maritime rescue assets to bring disabled yachts back into port. All the encounters with the killer whales took place about two to eight nautical miles from the coast, and the sailing speed ranged between five and nine knots, either exclusively under sail or with both sail and motor. 

The sailing yacht Urki 1 captured video footage of an attack off A Coruña, Galicia in the early hours of September 14. The incident left the yacht with a damaged rudder, and she was forced to request a tow from the rescue vessel LS Langostiera.

In total, more than a dozen attacks have been catalogued by Spanish authorities at locations between Gibraltar and Galicia. The orcas' motives are unclear, and the incidents are exceptionally rare, marine biologists say. No fatal orca attack in the wild has ever been reported. 

The new rule is intended to prevent harm to sailors and orcas alike, the ministry said, describing it as "proportionate, objective and non-discriminatory in safeguarding [both] the conservation of marine biodiversity and safety of navigation." It is temporary and limited to one week in duration, though the agency said that it could be extended to other regions if needed.