In search for orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar

The Spanish sun stings on my skin while I walk on the pier, somewhat tense. The bright light reflects off the walls of the fort and the houses of Tarifa, the calm water in the harbor and the white boats bobbing in it. Sunglasses are indispensable here. But it is not hot. A fresh breeze is blowing from the Atlantic Ocean. At the end of the pier, the boat is waiting. The ‘Pirate Salvora’ is the new fast boat of Turmares, a known whale-watch organization in Tarifa. “The conditions are perfect; the wind is quiet, the tide is favorable and there is plenty of tuna swimming around.” Sounds like a perfect day to see my first orcas in the wild.

By Leonard Boekee

 

When the boat  left the embrace of the harbor behind it goes full throttle towards Tangier. We are at the Strait of Gibraltar, a fourteen-kilometer-wide waterway between two continents; Europe and Africa. Although not broad the Strait of Gibraltar is in most places about 900 meters deep. Our goal is a shallower area for the Moroccan coast. After about half an hour we reach dozens of Spanish and Moroccan fishing boats. It’s ‘only’ 200 meters deep and therefore these fishermen flock here. They fish with lines and hooks on the bluefin tuna.The fish migrates in the summer months from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. Because it is shallower here fishermen can use shorter lines and there is more chance of catching tuna. Once the fish is hooked the men are working with might and main to get the loot aboard as soon as possible.

People are not the only fishermen who come here for the tuna. Since time immemorial groups of orcas hunt here on the big, fast fish. But because of overfishing tuna became scarcer. Some 30 years ago, an orca came up with the idea to bite a hooked tuna. Since then, this efficient and simple way of hunting is used occasionally by two groups of orcas. The orcas remain calm hanging around near the fishing boats and wait until a tuna is brought to the surface. Then they attack underwater and take big bites out of the nutrient-rich tuna. They are smart enough to leave the head containing the sharp hook. Approximately 11 percent of the landed tuna is battered. A nice tuna is worth thousands of euros. So it’s no wonder that tuna fishermen sometimes throw stones to the orcas or unsuccessfully trying to stop the orcas with boats. Where tuna fishermen are, you may also find orcas. Fishermen form as it were the bait for whale-watchers. Let’s hope that the orcas take the bait today.

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The engine of the ‘Pirate Salvora’ runs smoother. About 50 pairs of eyes are staring strained at the water around the fishing boats. More than half an hour we sail around, but there will be no black dorsal fins. The orcas are not here. Where are they? Somewhere out there in the blue mass called Atlantic Ocean. Probably they can catch enough tuna there themself. It is impossible to go searching randomly for them. The crew of Turmares is in contact with other organizations and the skipper is a former tuna fisherman. They know it makes no sense to look for orcas at another place. The animals can be anywhere. That’s just the risk of spotting wildlife.

The people on board, like me, came specifically for the spectacle of the orcas. Disappointed we sail back in the Strait of Gibraltar. Unlike orcas, sperm whales and fin whales, dolphins and pilot whales are residents of these waters. Soon our boat is surrounded by hundreds of striped dolphins. The animals jump gracefully out of the water and swim briefly on the bow wave. Especially for Orcazine I have an underwater camera to a long stick at hand. I put the camera in the blue water to capture some unique underwater images of these beautiful animals.

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Top left: Portrait of a bottlenose dolphin.
Bottom left and right: Striped dolphins

The dolphins have already disappeared from sight when suddenly an enthusiastic cry sounds. “Orcas!” And yes. In the distance I see a black dorsal fin gliding through the water. But when more animals surfaces it soon becomes clear that these are not orcas but pilot whales. They have a blunt snout and lack the characteristic white spots but otherwise are impressive animals to see. The group is widespread and plowing through the waves of the Strait with frequent movements. These cetaceans like to have a look at the boat. After a while we turn and sail back towards the lighthouse of Tarifa.

No orcas today but maybe we have more luck tomorrow…

I maintained that positive thought until my last day in Tarifa had arrived. A strong Levante wind blows from the east and all tours are cancelled. That’s it. Almost every day I sailed the Strait of Gibraltar with Turmares. Every time we encountered no orcas off the coast of Morocco. And each time we were comforted by the antics of striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales. My laptop now contains nearly 10,000 underwater photos. Most show a blank blue sea or a lot of waves and bubbles but there are plenty of successful pictures with the ‘locals of the Strait of Gibraltar’. But unfortunately no orcas. During one trip, orcas are seen unexpectedly. Unfortunately I was not on the water that day…

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Top: In the middle of a group of pilot whales.
Bottom left: a group of pilotwhales.
Bottom right: a curious young calf.

I’ve had incredibly bad luck. Before I left, there were many encounters with orcas. A few days after I returned in the Netherlands orcas were seen again frequently. Despite the disappointment, I still enjoyed the special experience to spot marine mammals. Meeting of cetaceans in the wild is much more impressive than a show at a marine park. The tension of searching, the movements of the boat, the smell of salt water and of course the thrill when the animals swim towards the boat by themselves or make enthusiastic jumps. The friendly and relaxing atmosphere on the southernmost tip of Europe is amazing. Besides whale-watching Tarifa offers fine beaches, good food and beautiful sporting and cultural excursions.

Special thanks are due to the people of Tarifa Turmares who have done everything to make this experience unforgettable. I already cannot wait to return next year. Hopefully I will have more luck.

Adiós amigos!

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Top left: Moroccan fisherman were happy with the absence of orcas.
Top right: The big boat of Turmares with orcas in 2012.
Bottom: The ‘Pirate Salvore’ enters the harbour of Tarifa.

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More information:

turmares

Visit the website of Turmares Tarifa for all you want to know about this organisation.
You can follow them on Facebook

More information about CIRCE (Conservation, Information and Research on Cetaceans at the Iberian Peninsula)

 

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