The killer whale, scientifically known as Orcinus orca or simply orca in Spanish, is a highly intelligent and social marine mammal. It is the largest member of the dolphin family and can be found in oceans all over the world, including off the coast of Spain.
The Iberian orcas belong to the type found usually in the Macaronesia area (Canary Islands, Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde) and around the whole Atlantic coastline of the Iberian Peninsula. There are 3 main populations; Azorean, Canarian and Iberian. It seems that none of the populations cross the Strait into the Mediterranean Sea, if it happens, it’s usually very rare and ends with orcas turning back soon or dying because of the lack of prey (The reason to their presence in this sea, being possibly explained by disease and/or disorientation). (See https://www.proyectoorcacadiz.com/en/about-2)
Tarifa: Orca, Whale, and Dolphin Watching Cruise
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Iberian orcas can often be seen in the Strait of Gibraltar area, the narrow waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. This population is estimated at around 60 individuals which visit the south of the Iberian Peninsula between late spring and early autumn and then travel north during the winter, following the migration of Bluefin Tuna, which is, its main prey.
Killer whales in Spanish waters are known for their distinctive behaviors and hunting techniques. They have been observed preying on various marine mammals, such as dolphins and seals. In the Strait of Gibraltar, they have been documented using a technique called carousel feeding, where they swim in circles to create a wave that washes over a target prey animal, making it easier for them to catch it.
These Spanish killer whales have attracted the interest of researchers and conservationists due to their unique behaviors and their relatively small population size. Efforts are being made to study and protect these magnificent creatures to ensure their long-term survival.
Killer whales have a complex social structure and live in matrilineal groups known as pods. A typical pod consists of related females and their offspring, led by the oldest and most experienced female, known as the matriarch. Male killer whales, or bulls, usually live with their natal pod until they reach sexual maturity, after which they may leave to join other pods or form smaller bachelor groups.
Killer whales have a long lifespan, with females living up to 50-80 years or more, and males generally living around 30-50 years. They reach sexual maturity between the ages of 10 and 15 years, although the exact age can vary among populations.
Diet and Habits
Killer whales are apex predators and have a diverse diet that can vary depending on their geographical location and the specific population. They are known to be highly adaptable and have been observed feeding on fish, squid, marine mammals (such as seals, sea lions, and dolphins), and even other whales. The diet of a killer whale can be categorized into two main types:
- Fish-Eating: Some populations of killer whales primarily feed on fish, such as salmon, herring, and other species found in their habitats. They may use sophisticated hunting strategies, like cooperative hunting and corralling fish into tight groups using “bubble” nets.
- Mammal-Eating: Other populations, often referred to as “transient” or “mammal-eating” killer whales, have a diet that mainly consists of marine mammals. They hunt seals, sea lions, dolphins, and sometimes even larger whales. These killer whales often exhibit different hunting techniques, like stealthy approaches and coordinated attacks.
It’s important to note that diet preferences can vary between killer whale populations, and some populations may specialize in certain prey types depending on local availability and ecological factors.
Killer whales are highly intelligent and have a range of complex social behaviors and vocalizations that they use to communicate within their pods. They are considered top predators in the marine ecosystem and play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of their respective habitats.
Attacks on boats in Spanish waters
Over the years, there have been reports of interactions between killer whales and boats (especially sailing) in Spanish waters. These incidents have received media attention and raised concerns among boaters and researchers. In more recent years, there have been several documented cases of killer whales approaching and interacting with boats in Spanish coastal areas. These interactions have involved behaviors such as bumping, ramming, and damaging boats, particularly sailboats. While the reasons behind these interactions are not entirely clear there are a few hypotheses:
- Playful behavior: Some experts believe that these interactions may be a form of play for the killer whales. Like other intelligent animals, they may be curious and interact with objects in their environment, including boats.
- Mistaken identity: It’s possible that the killer whales are mistaking boats for their prey. The vibrations and sounds generated by boats could resemble the echolocation cues they use to locate and hunt marine mammals.
- Defensive behavior: Another theory suggests that the killer whales may be exhibiting defensive behavior, possibly due to previous negative interactions with boats or out of a desire to protect their young.
The latest studies seem to imply that the defensive behaviour is mostly likely for this behaviour but It’s important to note that these interactions are relatively rare and not representative of typical killer whale behavior. While they can be intimidating and potentially cause damage to boats, there have been no reports of serious injuries to humans resulting from these interactions.
This video was taken in northern Spain.
Researchers and authorities continue to monitor these incidents and work towards better understanding the behavior of killer whales in the area. Efforts are being made to educate boaters on how to responsibly interact with marine wildlife and minimize potential conflicts.
Geo tagging Spanish Killer whale – Orcinus orca – Orca in 2023
One of the approximately sixty killer whales that inhabit Spanish waters, particularly in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Galician coast, has taken on the task of carrying a GPS tag embedded in its fin. This GPS tag serves to signal the presence of the killer whales and help prevent negative interactions with sailboats.
By using satellite tagging, the GPS tag on this particular killer whale has facilitated the creation of the first in a series of weekly maps. These maps, developed by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, provide valuable information to navigators about the whereabouts of killer whale families. Navigators can then avoid these areas to ensure the safety of both the sailboats and the killer whales.
- Article on geotagging ocas in Spanish waters: https://efeverde.com/una-orca-con-un-marcaje-satelital-ayudara-a-evitar-colisiones-con-los-veleros/
- Join in on the conversation about orcas in Spanish waters at the Iberian Nature Forum: https://iberianatureforum.com/forums/topic/killer-whales-attacking-boats/.
- The Reference space for research, education, and conservation on the marine environment in the scope of the Iberian Peninsula. (Espacio de referencia para la investigación, educación y conservación sobre el medio marino en el ámbito de la Península Ibérica): https://circe.info/
- Orca Research Cádiz: “Proyecto O.R.CA. was born to raise awareness about the situation of the orca in the Iberian Peninsula. A group of volunteers from different areas whose mission and passion is the protection and conservation of this highly threatened population. https://www.proyectoorcacadiz.com/en
- The 2022 identification catalogue for Iberian orcas is also very informative: https://www.proyectoorcacadiz.com/en/_files/ugd/ed7c60_b927212f305d47af92fee53cb809e425.pdf
Important key points in this article
- Satellite tagging of killer whales will enable the creation of weekly maps by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, providing information to navigators about the location of killer whale families.
- Maritime Rescue has assisted and towed 24 sailboats in 2023 that encountered killer whales in the Strait of Gibraltar, surpassing the number of rescues in previous years.
- The cause behind the killer whales’ interactions with sailboats remains unclear, and various theories have been proposed, including playful behavior, revenge, or training of the young.
- Measures have been taken to temporarily restrict sailboat navigation in certain areas and study these new behaviors of the killer whales.
- Satellite marking has been undertaken in collaboration with the Cetacean Conservation, Information, and Study (CIRCE) platform to gather data and draw maps to identify areas of risk.
- Maritime safety authorities have issued recommendations to boaters, such as motorizing instead of sailing and heading towards shallower waters in case of interactions with orcas.
- Skippers are encouraged to report interactions and provide photographic records of the orcas involved.
See the full list of mammalls in Spain here: https://wildsideholidays.co.uk/mammals-of-spain/
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