Don’t Mess With Orcs

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I will be remote tonight so this is written Thursday afternoon.

Carcharadons carchariasotherwise known as the Great White Shark, has good reason to be cocky, having been featured in no less than 97 movies and tv shows, almost all from his fascinating, albeit (mostly) mechanical, first performance in the 1975 super blockbuster, Jaws. Since that film, the great white has exploited its role as “supreme predator”, slithering with almost no natural enemy (except man, who attacks everything indiscriminately), and killing and eating more or less what it feels, without much hindsight from the underwater community. It was theorized than certain large underwater species (the giant squid, or the sperm whale, for example) could attack a great white, but little hard evidence that they actually do.

Great white shark breach at Seal Island, False Bay, South Africa (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Corbis via Getty Images)
This guy may have just spotted a killer whale

The only exception to the relative hegemony of the great white, however, is the killer whale, colloquially known as the “killer whale”. Highly intelligent and socially gifted, the Orca, like explained by the Dutch Shark Society, although less popular (featured in only eight man-made films, most in a positive light), the great white absolutely dominates when the two species interbreed:

Killer whales have such an intimidating presence in the ocean that great whites actively avoid them. When a killer whale enters a popular great white feeding area, the great whites leave the vicinity.

A 2009 study of the 17 tagged great whites noted their remarkable and immediate exodus—even from major feeding grounds—once a pod of killer whales appeared. More remarkably, the white sharks avoided the area completely, not for a day, not for a week, but for up to an entire year. Further research documented this phenomenon even when the orcas were “just passing through”.

As reported by Ed Yong, writing for Atlantic:

[O]rcas are “potentially the most dangerous predator,” says Toby Daly-Engel, a shark specialist at the Florida Institute of Technology. “They have a lot of social behaviors that sharks don’t, which allows them to hunt effectively in groups, communicate with each other, and educate their young.”

Combining both brains and brawn, killer whales are known to kill sharks in surprisingly complicated ways. Some will bring their prey to the surface, then karate will chop them with tail bangs above the head. Others seem to have figured out that they could hold sharks upside down to induce a paralytic state called tonic immobility. Killer whales can kill the fastest species (makos) and the largest (whale sharks). And when they encounter great whites, a few recorded cases suggest that those encounters end very badly for the sharks.

Visual recording of killer whales interacting with the great white is understandably rare. As reported by Jason Daly for the Smithsonian magazine, the first visual record of such an interaction only dates back to the Clinton administration.

In 1997, in the first interaction on record, fishermen near southeast Farallon saw a pair of killer whales kill a young great white that was trying to sniff out the sea lion they were eating. The orcs beat him to death and then ate his liver.

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In 2017, five dead great white sharks washed up on the beaches of South Africa, all with their livers almost surgically removed. It was the work of the killer whales, which killed the sharks and then made a wound near the calorie-rich shark liver. They then crush the shark’s delicious treat and leave the rest of the corpse behind. “It’s like squeezing toothpaste” [shark researcher] Jorgensen tells Yong.

A large male orca (killer whale) bursts into Vancouver Harbor
An orca in Vancouver Harbor

Which makes the aerial footage below (taken by drone) of killer whales off the coast of South Africa all the more fascinating, circling and attacking a great white shark that had the misfortune to disrupt their socialization.

As reported by Agence France-presse for the Guardian, “A pod of killer whales are seen hunting sharks during an hour-long chase off Mossel Bay, a port city in the southern province of the Western Cape, in footage from helicopters and drones that informed a scientific study published this week.” (Notably, the music used to accompany this rare sequence is far from the “Jaws” theme)

Alison Towner, shark specialist at the Marine Dynamics Academy in Gansbaai, South Africa and lead author of the study, said: “This behavior has never been observed in detail before, and certainly never from the air.”

A snippet of the footage, taken in May, shows five killer whales chasing and killing a great white and scientists believe three others were mauled to death during the hunt.

It is unclear what triggered the attack of the orcas in this circumstance, but it may be that the far less intelligent tall whites in a xenophobic fit made derogatory comments or gestures towards them, or perhaps to about their culture:

One of the whales was known to have attacked great white sharks before, but the other four were not. The authors said this suggests the practice is spreading, with previous studies establishing that black and white animals can learn from each other through “cultural transmission”.

Whatever the source of the orcas’ anger, other great whites quickly fled the scene.

Sharks disappeared from the area after the attack, with only one great white shark spotted within 45 days, according to the paper published in the journal Ecology.

There’s still one guy who didn’t get the memo.

(Rumor – but unconfirmed – is that they agreed to regroup on the Jersey Shore, where the food supply is recurrent and orcas are seen. extremely rare).

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