Great white sharks are the epitome of an apex predator. In the ocean, these toothy creatures easily occupy one of the top spots in the food chain (although the odds of one killing a human are 1 in 3,700,000). But recent drone and helicopter footage of a water attack reveals another marine mammal appears to have the upper hand.
For the first time, biologists have captured direct evidence of killer whales attacking and killing great white sharks in South Africa. The first video was captured by drone in May 2022 in the Mossel Bay area, revealing three killer whales cornering and fatally biting a three-meter great white shark. The shark’s body was not seen or recovered after the bloody battle. That video, along with extended helicopter footage of that attack and shark tag data, was published this week in the journal Ecology.
The first video, recorded by a drone pilot, was originally published in June, but the team later received cellphone footage recorded by a helicopter pilot that was taken the same day. They were able to identify the killer whales in the helicopter video as the same ones in the drone pilot’s video – spotting a particularly famous shark hunter named Starboard. Evidence suggests the capsule went on an hour-long hunt, killing a potential total of four great white sharks. The researchers decided to correct and resubmit the document with the new information. It provides new insight into the rare evasive behavior of great whites, a species that once dominated South African waters but is now experiencing rapid decline.
“I still remember watching the footage for the first time and feeling a whole mixed bag of emotions,” Alison Townerlead author of the study and senior shark scientist at the Marine Dynamic Academy in Gansbaai, South Africa, said PopSci in an email. “We have been analyzing evidence of these interactions since 2017 and have often been challenged as to whether this is really happening in South Africa. I guess the footage put those questions to bed as it is irrefutable proof that killer whales are hunting white sharks here.
[Related: Even blue whales aren’t safe from orcas]
Killer whales are like “wolves of the ocean,” says Towner—they usually capture prey in organized pods. In two of the recorded attacks, the team was able to see the killer whales approach the sharks slowly and closely. Instead of running away, the great white will swim in tight circles around the orca while keeping it in its sights – sharks are very visual creatures. It’s a common strategy that seals and turtles also use to successfully escape sharks, Towner explains. But since killer whales hunt in groups, the tactic may not be as effective.
“I was in awe of the way orcas strategize and hunt, but you can’t help but feel for the sharks,” says Towner. “It’s quite compelling to watch great white sharks being surrounded and killed by larger predators.”
Orcas, in particular, seem to have a taste for liver. The video shows them biting into the sharks belly and ripping out their liver, which can be seen floating to the surface where the orca swallows it. The liver of great white sharks is fatty and rich in nutrients, making it the perfect meal, Towner explains. The footage provides an explanation for previous shark carcasses washed ashore without livers, the team wrote in the study.
It actually could be relatively common occurrence. Orcas are the only known marine predator of great white sharks. in South Africa, Starboard and port partner in crime, have been reported to attack other shark species and have been linked to white shark deaths since around 2017, but this is the first time the collision has been seen in action. Before killer whales began hunting in Mossel Bay, great white sharks were seen frequently – sometimes recorded daily by research surveys. The study authors collected data from drones and dive boats before and after predation events and found that white sharks fled the area immediately after the attacks. Only one white shark was seen in the 45 days after the predation was reported.
[Related: Great whites don’t hunt humans—they just have blind spots]
“Orcas are extremely intelligent and social animals,” said marine mammal specialist and study co-author Simon Elwen in press release. They are known to learn and adopt behaviors or skills from each other into their own unique cultural system.
If the practice of hunting spreads among killer whales over time, it may be difficult to be a shark in South African waters. Killer whales are already pushing great whites out of Gansbaai, a fishing town east of Cape Town that is popular for shark tourism. Human-caused climate change and fishing are already linked to declining shark populations, Towner explains. Killer whales add additional pressure to the mix, motivating Towner and the researchers to closely monitor the dynamics of sharks and killer whales and the potential impacts they may have on South Africa’s ocean ecosystem.
“While these interactions may be fascinating, it’s important to understand that white sharks face multiple threats in South Africa, and killer whales are now an additional threat to their already fragile populations,” says Towner. “This information will need to be taken into account in future studies and in management moving forward here in South Africa.”