Spain in-depth: Adventure

Tarifa orcas : the amazing tuna hunt

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Tarifa's orcas

The town of Tarifa is located in the most southerly point of Continental Europe. The only European territories more southern than Tarifa are Cyprus, Malta and the Greek islands of Crete and Gavdos. Tarifa is just 15 km from Morocco, and, on a clear day the African continent is visible from the beach.

This location also makes Tarifa the unofficial kitesurfing capital of Europe. Tarifa’s is also located at the meeting point of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic. This junction creates a unique climate characterized by intense winds. For most of the year, Tarifa experiences strong winds that sweep across the beach: the Levante winds blowing east from Africa, and the Poniente, from the west from the Atlantic. This can be uncomfortable if you just want to lounge around in the sand, but it’s ideal for kite surfing. It is so windy in fact that it is said that the winds can drive people mad if they are not used to the odd climate.

This unique natural setting isn’t only good for kite surfing. The narrow stretch of water that separates Tarifa from north Africa is home to a large population of different whale and dolphin species. Long-finned pilot whales, minke whales, sperm whales and orcas (killer whales) are common in this area. From April to October it is easy to spot different types of whales just off the coast hunting and frolicking. But the real show kicks off in mid-July to mid-September. This is the orcas hunting season, when they patrol the straight searching for schools of tuna heading for the Atlantic.

The people of Tarifa have had a long relationship with these whales, developing a symbiosis with them. In centuries past, fishermen would see the long dorsal fins of the orca and knew they where hunting tuna. The orca pods would push the tuna into the fishermen’s path and the fishermen would would do the same for the orcas. The local fishermen call orcas “Espartel” from y the Spanish word for sword (espada) because the orcas dorsal fin looks like a black sword pointing out of the water. It is very common for fishermen to hook tuna on a line and before they are able to get it on board for the orcas to eat the tuna and leave only the head. This behaviour is unique to the pods of orcas from this area. Young orcas in particular benefit from this strategy since a hooked tuna is a much easier pray to catch.

There are currently at least 3 known pods that call the strait of Gibraltar home and at least 25 different individuals. These 3 families of orcas apparently take turns hunting the area of Tarifa depending on the amount of fish available.