This sounds straight out of a comic: Orcas and Great White Sharks battle for ocean supremacy in South Africa.
You’d think apex ocean predators just tend to get out of each other’s way and only compete with their own species when it comes to leading a group.
But just when we think we have something solid to point out about nature, it comes and surprises us with something new: pods of orcas have begun hunting down great white sharks off the coast of South Africa.
According to a report on the New York Post, the phenomenon began in early May when scientists at the shark cage diving company Marine Dynamics spotted a pair of killer whales cruising along the southwestern coast of South Africa.
Days later, great white shark carcasses mysteriously began washing up on shore.
“From a scientific perspective in South Africa, it’s absolutely unprecedented,” said Alison Towner, white shark biologist at the Dyer Island Conservation Trust in Gansbaai, South Africa.
Five great white sharks have washed up in the area since then, ranging from 9 to 16 feet tall and having large tears just below their pectoral fin.
Aside from the tell-tale wound, the sharks also had their livers removed with almost a “surgical precision.”
Scientists performing the autopsies to make sure it wasn’t a case of poaching, as white sharks are considered an endangered species, assured that the injuries were a clear sign of orca predation.
“I’ve seen some incredible things working with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, but one thing I never ever expected to see was predation pressure from killer whales,” Towner said.
“We had never even seen an orca here prior to 2011.”
Orca attacks on great whites have been recorded only twice before, off the coast of California and Australia. There have been no recorded cases of great whites hunting Orcas.
Towner suspects that the orca pair spotted previously had started preying on smaller sharks first, then learned to hunt the bigger game and will “probably not stop anytime soon.”
While only a handful of great white sharks washed up on the beaches, the experts believed it is highly possible that more sharks were killed but the carcasses sank to the seafloor. The sharks that did wash up were likely attacked close to shore, with currents, tides and onshore winds helping push their carcasses up onto the beach.
So how does an orca take down one of the most feared ocean predators?
A theory scientists developed was that the orca “shuts down” all communication with their pod, then sneaks up and stuns the sharks by slapping it with it massive, powerful tail.
It then flips the shark on its back, which causes paralysis in the shark, then pushes it through the water until it suffocates.
Remember, sharks need a steady current of water flowing through its gills to be able to ‘breathe’, if you haven’t forgotten your middle school science lesson yet.
The orca finishes its attack by carefully tearing open a hole in the shark to remove the liver, the largest and most nutrient-rich organ.
While both are formidable predators and both typically hunt seals, orcas have an advantage over the great whites in that they are amazing group tacticians, and the entire pod works as a team over the typically solitary great white shark.
Towner added in the report that after a three week period where the great whites had disappeared from the area entirely, Marine Dynamics has seen the whites slowly returning to their boats in Gansbaai.
The New York Post report adds that apart from this new form of predator, sharks also face dangers from fisheries, bather protection nets, poaching, pollutants, coastal development, and global warming impacts.
Pressure from the orca predation is just “not stacked up in their favor,” said Towner.
Considered a threatened species, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 great whites are left in the entire world. Scientists worry about the long-term effect of this never-before-documented predation.