Because of their terrifying (largely undeserved) reputation, it’s easy to assume great white sharks are the pinnacle of the underwater food chain. In reality, however, it’s killer whales!
With no natural predators, orcas have free rein of the sea, hunting down anything they deem meal-worthy with little opposition. And though sharks aren’t their number one choice of snack, they’re always on the menu.
Now, you may be thinking, Shamu? That killer whale? But they seem so gentle! Well, while an undeniably beautiful animal, they aren’t called “killers” for no reason.
Natural-born hunters, orcas are known for their precise targeted attacks. Working together, they can take down just about anything – including a great white shark – with ease.
Though researchers have long known about killer whales’ taste for sharks, they were never able to capture it on film. Until now.
Using a helicopter and a drone, scientists captured the first-ever aerial footage of killer whales hunting and killing great white sharks. The footage was taken on May 16, 2022, in Mossel Bay, South Africa, and submitted as part of a study published in Ecology in October.
“This behavior has never been witnessed in detail before, and certainly never from the air,” said lead author Alison Towner.
How common is shark hunting among killer whales?
In the footage, at least three killer whales work together to bring down the great white shark. And believe it or not, this is completely normal behavior.
Orcas aren’t just highly intelligent, they’re social as well. Unlike sharks, they move together in packs, making them extremely effective predators.
For the past decade or so, a pair of male killer whales named Port and Starboard have massacred dozens of sharks, devouring their livers and leaving them to die.
Back in March, Port and Starboard ate the livers of nineteen broadnose sevengill sharks in a single day! In 2017, they slaughtered at least eight great white sharks. Again, they didn’t eat the sharks whole, they simply ripped out the livers and left the bodies behind.
The infamous duo has gained such a fearsome reputation that sharks will avoid whatever area of the sea the orcas are currently roaming.
So, what causes this bizarre meal? Well, shark livers are highly nutritious with a large quantity of fats and vitamins, the perfect combo for a hungry killer whale.
As marine biologist Alison Kock explained on Twitter, orcas have shark hunting down to a science. Once they learn the location of the nutrient-dense shark liver, they “remember it forever and become more efficient [hunters].”
With that skill, there’s no need to tear the shark apart for their favorite meal. They can pinpoint the liver with surgical precision and tear it out while leaving the rest of the shark intact, just as the killer whales demonstrated in their attack on the great white.