What do coconuts, vending machines, and selfies have in common? They’re responsible for more deaths every year than sharks. And yet, shark attacks are high on the list of things people are afraid of. Great white sharks especially strike fear in many people. But it turns out that even they have something to be afraid of. Orcas, a.k.a. killer whales, kill great white sharks just to eat their livers. And now there’s video from South Africa of the dramatic event. Drone footage aired as part of Discovery’s Shark Week shows orcas feeding on a great white shark like the apex predator they are.
We first saw the dramatic footage of the orcas killing a great white shark on The Daily Beast. It’s part of the program “Shark House.” According to a recent study covered by Live Science, great white shark numbers in the Gansbaai area of coastal South Africa have plummeted since the orca pod starting killing them. There used to be a year-round presence of the sharks, but now sightings are way down. Data from tagged sharks show them fleeing the area, sometimes not returning for months at a time. And it may just be two male orcas that are responsible for a shift in the entire ecosystem. Smaller sharks that are usually scared away by great whites have moved back into the area. Researchers are still collecting information, and drone footage like this will help better understand the behavior.
The behavior has been seen before, but in nowhere near the detail of the new drone footage. A tourist boat in Australia took video of orcas hunting a great white (below). Scientists studying orca and great white shark populations off the coast of San Francisco also described the interaction in 2019. The Farallon Islands are feeding grounds for both species. The peer-reviewed journal Nature published an article showing that tagged great white sharks left the area when orcas showed up. The scientists’ reason that the orcas eat only the liver because it is high in calories, and they have to move on quickly before the carcass sinks, and other scavengers arrive. Hannibal would not approve of the orcas’ methods of killing the great white sharks. They do not honor every part.
Shark Week 2022 ran on Discovery Channel and can also be watched through Prime Video. There’s also National Geographic’s SharkFest, which includes three weeks of shows also available on Disney+. It also includes dramatic titles, like “Sky Sharks” about how drones are helping with research projects all over the world. Or “Shark Gangs” to cover the behavior that some sharks are social creatures.
Originally published on July 29, 2022.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.