Sailors Turn to Heavy Metal to Fend Off Rowdy Orcas

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Published Nov 19, 2023 11:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

A raucous pod of orcas have been slamming sailboats around off Spain for the past three years, frustrating yacht owners and occasionally sinking their boats. In retaliation, some of these beleaguered boaters have tried to ward off the assaults by broadcasting heavy metal music with underwater speakers - but like teenagers enjoying a good concert, the notorious orcas continue to rock the boat.

Charter yacht operator Florian Rutsch operates around the Iberian Peninsula, and has tried out the government-recommended response - turn on the engine and motor off fast - as well as some of the homegrown ideas, like scattering sand in the water. Heavy metal does not appear to work, he told the New York Times. During a crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar earlier this month, Rutsch ran into a pod of rudder-slamming orcas and decided to add mood music. He and his crew turned on a playlist dubbed "Metal for Orcas" featuring some of the heavier bands in modern metal. Whether the orcas found the music annoying or inspiring, they did not find it much of a deterrent, and they quickly disabled Rutch's steering by banging their heads into his rudder.

Other commentators on sailors' discussion groups have reported that heavy metal is effective in driving away killer whales, so musical tastes may vary between groups of orcas. Whether or not it works, researchers discourage the practice, as the music might not be good for orcas' hearing (and might draw them to an easy target). "The playing of loud sounds underwater might mask the signature sounds of sailboats — but ultimately, the whales would catch on and use it to more easily locate vessels playing it,”  marine mammal expert Andrew Trites of UBC told Business Insider.

Based on records of orca sightings and movements, Spanish researchers with Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA) have set up an orca-intensity prediction service for sailing yacht operators in the affected area. In winter, that's the Strait of Gibraltar, and the group currently predicts a 1:40 chance of orca-boat interaction in a hotspot at the west end of the strait's traffic separation scheme (1:200 everywhere else in the waterway). To minimize risk, it recommends making north-south crossings in the waters north of Ceuta, and east-west transits in shallow water along the coastline.