Article image

Solitary orcas are hunting and eating great white sharks, a stunning behavioral change

In an extraordinary display of predatory skill, a solitary orca has been documented for the first time hunting and consuming a great white shark in just two minutes, off the coast of Mossel Bay, South Africa. 

“The astonishing predation, off the coast of Mossel Bay, South Africa, represents unprecedented behavior underscoring the exceptional proficiency of the killer whale,” said lead author Alison Towner, an expert in ichthyology at Rhodes University.

Orcas hunting great whites

This revelation follows the team’s 2022 discovery, which identified a duo of orcas hunting great white sharks, thus altering the sharks’ natural behaviors and distributions. 

Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, are typically recognized for their group hunting strategies, targeting large marine animals such as sea lions, seals, and other whales.

However, this instance of solitary hunting by an orca, particularly against a top predator like the great white shark, marks a new understanding of their capabilities.

Adaptability and intelligence 

“Again, as previously in South Africa, the orcas are exhibiting a strong preference for extracting and consuming the lipid-rich livers of white sharks – a specialized feeding behavior,” Towner said.

“But what we witnessed was an orca, nicknamed Starboard — due to his collapsed dorsal fin — performing alone to incapacitate and consume a white shark within an astounding two-minute timeframe.”

This incident not only highlights a solitary hunting technique by at least one killer whale but also challenges the previously understood cooperative hunting behaviors prevalent in the region.

The study underscores the intricate dynamics of predator-prey interactions within marine ecosystems, emphasizing the adaptability and intelligence of orcas.

Broader implications 

The implications of such predation events are vast, raising questions about their impact on shark populations in South Africa and the broader marine ecosystem. 

“The study raises critical questions about the impact of killer whale predation on shark populations in South Africa,”  Towner explained. “The displacement of various shark species due to killer whale presence may have implications for mesopredator release and potential trophic changes in the marine ecosystem.”

 “The observations reported here add more layers to the fascinating story of these two killer whales and their capabilities,” added Simon Elwen, Founding Director and Principal Scientist at Sea Search.

“As smart, top predators, killer whales can rapidly learn new hunting techniques on their own or from others, so monitoring and understanding the behaviors used here and by other killer whales in South Africa is an important part of helping us understand more about these animals.”

Powerful predation event

The collaboration of citizens, researchers, and tourists played a pivotal role in documenting this predation event, showcasing the value of citizen science in advancing our understanding of marine life.

Witnessing the event firsthand, Esther Jacobs from Keep Fin Alive shared her experience, indicating the initial excitement turned somber upon realizing the nature of the interaction: 

“Upon reaching Mossel Bay’s Seal Island, the scent of shark liver oil and a noticeable slick indicated a recent kill. Tracking Port and Starboard near the island, they remained separated. Witnessing a white shark’s fin break the surface initially sparked excitement, but that turned to a somber realization as Starboard swiftly approached. The moment Starboard rapidly preyed on my favorite shark species was both devastating and intensely powerful.”

Killer whale predation

“Over two decades of annual visits to South Africa, I’ve observed the profound impact these killer whales have on the local white shark population. Seeing Starboard carry a white shark’s liver past our vessel is unforgettable. Despite my awe for these predators, I’m increasingly concerned about the coastal marine ecology balance,” added co-author Primo Micarelli, from the Shark Studies Center and Siena University.

In conclusion, Dr. Towner’s research offers profound insights into the ecological roles and adaptive strategies of mammalian predators within marine environments. The study not only contributes to our global understanding of killer whale predation dynamics but also highlights the necessity for adaptable conservation strategies and vigilant ecological monitoring in the face of environmental changes.

History of orcas and great white sharks

As discussed above, both orcas and great white sharks are at the top of the food chain, yet their interactions reveal a surprising dynamic, with orcas often dominating great whites in their shared marine habitat.

The power and hunting prowess of orcas

Orcas, with their distinctive black-and-white coloring, are among the most powerful predators in the ocean. They belong to the dolphin family and are highly intelligent, social animals that hunt in organized pods.

Their diverse diet includes fish, seals, and even other marine mammals. What sets orcas apart is their strategic hunting techniques, which they adapt based on their prey.

Orcas’ dominance over great white sharks

Orcas have been observed targeting great white sharks, a behavior that underscores their dominance. In these encounters, orcas use their superior intelligence and teamwork to outmaneuver and overpower the sharks.

They often target the liver of the great white shark, a nutrient-rich organ, using precise and strategic attacks to cause minimal damage to the rest of the body.

This surgical precision in hunting showcases the orcas’ advanced cognitive abilities and understanding of their prey’s anatomy.

The great white shark: A formidable predator

Great white sharks, known for their size, speed, and power, are formidable predators in their own right. They are solitary hunters, relying on ambush tactics to catch seals, fish, and even small cetaceans.

Great whites are equipped with a keen sense of smell, powerful jaws, and rows of razor-sharp teeth, making them highly efficient hunters.

Impact of orcas on great white shark behavior

The presence of orcas has a significant impact on the behavior of great white sharks. Studies have shown that great whites will vacate areas where orcas are present, sometimes for extended periods.

This avoidance behavior suggests that great whites recognize the threat posed by orcas and prefer to steer clear rather than risk confrontation.

The departure of great whites from these areas can have ripple effects on the local marine ecosystem, demonstrating the profound influence orcas have on their environment.

Implications of orcas hunting and future studies

The interaction between orcas and great white sharks is a remarkable display of nature’s complexity. Orcas, with their intelligence, social structure, and hunting prowess, have proven to be one of the few predators capable of challenging the great white shark.

This dynamic highlights the adaptability and survival strategies of these marine creatures and underscores the intricate balance within ocean ecosystems.

As apex predators, the role of orcas and great white sharks is crucial in maintaining the health and stability of marine life, making their interactions a subject of endless fascination and importance.

The study is published in the African Journal of Marine Science.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day