A great white shark washed ashore in South-Africa (Marine Dynamics)
Off the coast of South Africa, just under the surface of the ocean, an epic battle is underway as orcas hunting and killing of the world’s most iconic predator, the great white shark.
The phenomenon began in the beginning of May, when scientists at shark cage diving company Marine Dynamics spotted a couple of orcas cruising along the south-western coast of South Africa. Days later, the great white shark carcasses began washing in their wake.
“From a scientific perspective in South Africa, it is absolutely unprecedented,” says Alison Towner, great white shark, biologist at Dyer Island Conservation Trust in Gansbaai, South Africa.
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The four great white sharks that washed up in the span of less than a week ranged from 9 to 16 feet and everyone had a large crack under one of their pectoral fins. In particular, the sharks were missing their whole livers, which were removed with almost surgical precision. According to the scientists performing autopsies, these injuries are a clear sign of orca predation.
A great white shark is removed from a beach in South Africa (Marine Dynamics)
“I have a number of incredible things working with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, but one thing I never expected to see was the predation pressure from orcas,” Towner said. “We had never even seen an Orca here for 2011.”
So how exactly does an orca hunting a great white? One theory is that the killer whale is closed to all communication, sneaks up and stuns the shark by beating it with his huge, powerful tail. Then, flip the shark on its back, causing temporary paralysis, and pushes the shark through the water until it suffocates. The orca has completed the attack by carefully tearing open a hole in the shark to remove the liver, the largest and most nutrient rich organ.
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While only a handful of great white sharks that wash up on the beaches, experts believe that it is very possible that there are more sharks were killed, but the carcasses sank to the sea floor. The sharks who did the washing were likely to be attacked close to the shore, with currents, tides and onshore winds will help to push their death on the beach.
Killer whales have been attacking great white sharks off the coast of South Africa (Marine Dynamics)
“I was walking with my dogs along the beach and I saw something lying in the sand,” said Anton Barnard, a local fisherman and ex-naval officer. “When I came closer I saw that it was a great white shark. It is the first time in [my] 20 odd years now [here] that I’ve seen anything like this.”
Orcas are highly specialized predators. They usually eat seals, some whales and some sharks, but rarely great whites. Towner suspect that this pair started the hunt on smaller sharks and have now graduated to become the top predator of the sea. “Now they have learned how to kill white sharks, which is probably not going to stop anytime soon.”
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So how can these predators stack up against each other? Both great white sharks and orcas are considered apex predators, that there is no marine animal that usually preys on. Both species are able to swim 30 mph but orcas are slightly longer in body length and almost twice as heavy. Orca attack on great white sharks have been recorded only twice previously, for the coast of California and Australia. There are no cases of great white killer whale’s hunting. The orca’s main advantage? In contrast to the great white sharks, orcas hunt in teams, and learn like no other marine creature.
After a three-week period in which the great white disappeared from the area entirely, Marine Dynamics has seen the whites slowly returning to their boats in Gansbaai.
Considered as an endangered species, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 great whites are left in the whole world. Scientists are worried about the long-term effect of these never before documented predation.
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“Sharks face many threats in South Africa,” Towner explained. “The fisheries, bather protection nets, poaching, pollutants, coastal development, global warming effects. Now they have the predation pressure of another predator, the odds are just not stacked in their favor.” With minimum funding and resources in the direction of the white shark research in South Africa and the mysteries of this predation and the future of the great white sharks remain uncertain.