Orcas Sink Sailing Yacht off Morocco

File image courtesy MITMA

Published Nov 5, 2023 5:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

A pod of orcas has sunk another yacht off the coast of Spain, this time near the Strait of Gibraltar, according to Polish sail training operator Morksie Mile. 

On October 31, as the yacht was westbound in the Strait just off Morocco, it was "attacked by a herd of killer whales," Morskie Mile reported. The whales repeatedly struck the rudder for 45 minutes, causing "damage and leakage." The crew tried to save the yacht, with assistance from port tugs and the Moroccan Navy, but the flooding was too serious. The crew safely abandoned ship and the yacht went down off the port of Tangier Med.

By AIS data, the sailing yacht can be identified as the Polish-flagged Grazie Mamma. It got under way from Ceuta on the 30th and headed west, and its trackline was steady until the afternoon of the 31st. At 1233, it deviated suddenly from course, veering sharply to the north. It appeared to have difficulty maintaining heading, and its last AIS broadcast was received at about 1500 hours that afternoon. 

Full trackline: Grazie Mamma deviates from course and ceases transmitting off Tangier Med (Courtesy Pole Star)

Grazie Mamma was a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 449 measuring just over 13 meters in length. This fits the general description of the vessels targeted by orcas off Spain: According to researchers, the attacks always target sailing yachts measuring less than 15 meters long, usually while under way.

Vessels of this type have small props and large rudders, and some scientists who have studied the attack pattern believe that it is a form of play: the whales - identified by their markings as three specific juvenile orcas, all from the same pod - may simply enjoy slamming sailboat rudders to watch the boats spin around. (A competing theory, suggested by biologist Alfredo López Fernández of the University of Alviedo, is that an orca was injured by a vessel at some point in the past and its family is taking revenge.)

Sometimes these encounters off Spain are remarkable but harmless; sometimes they result in real damage, and the Grazie Mamma is not the first boat sunk by the attacks. So far, though, the behavior does not appear to be an attempt to hunt or harm crewmembers. There has never been a documented case of a human dying from an orca attack in the wild.

That may be of little comfort to the owners of lost and damaged yachts like the Grazie Mamma. "This yacht was for us all the best things in sea sailing. Long-standing friendships were formed on board," said Morskie Mile in a statement. "Very good memories will be transferred to Grazie Mamma II."