First Evidence of Orcas Hunting and Eating Great White Sharks Seen in Drone Footage

Frequent readers of CNET Science will remember Port and Starboard, the duo of killer whales from a story we published in June, which detailed research showing great white sharks were being hunted by the whales off the coast of South Africa. New aerial footage, released on Monday, shows one member of the murderous pair — Starboard — actually making a kill.

The footage was released on YouTube as part of a new study, led by Alison Towner, published on Oct. 3 in the journal Ecology. Towner also led the earlier study which used tracking and sensor data to show the great white sightings had plummeted as the killer whales moved in. The researchers hypothesized, from evidence found on shark carcasses, that killer whales were hunting the great whites and any surviving sharks had quite literally been scared away from the area.

The new aerial footage, captured by a private drone operator and a helicopter pilot’s Samsung S21, seems to confirm this and is the first direct evidence of orcas killing and eating great white sharks. It was captured in May at Mossel Bay, South Africa, and some footage had previously been released via the Discovery Channel.

“This behavior has never been witnessed in detail before, and certainly never from the air,” said Towner, who works as a senior shark scientist at Marine Dynamics Academy in Gansbaai, South Africa.

The photographs and video show some interesting maneuvers — the researchers believe the whales are potentially homing in on the great white shark’s livers, which provide all the sustenance an adult, male killer whale could ask for. The footage shows some of the attacks are directed just behind the pectoral fins, potentially to extract the liver. The team also studied photographs showing Starboard (a whale easily identified by its floppy dorsal fin) chowing down on one.

Intriguingly, Towner’s previous research also showed that bronze whaler sharks, another large shark that frequents the South African coast, started moving in as the great whites fled. Great whites sometimes feed on the bronze whalers, but the bronze whalers aren’t quite as frightened of orcas… so they felt safe enough to travel into Gansbaai and feed on the seal population. However, a tour operator from the region has seen killer whales attack bronze whalers, too. Truly, no shark is safe.

While Port and Starboard were known to be hunting great whites, the new research shows several other killer whales have also joined the hunts.

It’s too early to tell whether these killer whales are learning the shark-hunting technique from their forebears, but the study states if this is occurring, “it will have wider reaching impacts on shark populations and will need to be considered in future studies.”