A Killer Whale in South Africa Eats This Surprising Creature for Lunch In "Unprecedented" Attack

Orcas are known for eating fish and squid, but what happens when they adapt their diets to hunt great white sharks?

Anna Garrison - Author

Mar. 4 2024, Published 11:22 a.m. ET

Killer whale swimming in ocean
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With a nickname like "killer whale," it's no secret that orcas are some of the most intimidating marine mammals in the ocean. Tragically, climate change has heavily altered orca migration patterns, and even, it seems, their eating habits.

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While many were surprised to hear about orcas developing new behaviors, such as attacking boats, even more surprising is their new taste for another predator species — great white sharks! In June 2023, researchers captured footage of a killer whale decimating and eating a great white shark with deadly speed.

Keep reading for what you need to know about this wild event.

Tail of a killer whale swimming in the ocean.
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Researchers noticed a killer whale eating a great white shark in an unexpected phenomenon.

According to Sky News, researchers in South Africa captured a video of an orca whale chowing down on a great white shark on June 18, 2023. The incident has since been documented in the African Journal of Marine Science in a March 2024 report.

Shark biologist Dr. Alison Towner of Rhodes University said the phenomenon was "unprecedented" and "astonishing."

Towner's notes in the African Journal of Marine Science state that she and fellow scientists had been following two orcas that day, Port and Starboard. According to BBC News, the two male orcas are nicknamed because their dorsal fins point in opposite directions.

Port and Starboard have been previously documented hunting and eating great white sharks in 2022.

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Pod of killer whales swimming in the ocean.
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Around 3:02 p.m., researchers noticed a juvenile great white shark emerge from the water — with Starboard swiftly behind. Then, they detailed how the orca "gripped the left pectoral fin of the shark and thrust forward with the shark several times before eventually eviscerating it."

The research submission also explains, "[r]emarkably, the period from seizing the shark by the pectoral fin to eviscerating it lasted less than 2 minutes."

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Starboard's lunch might seem gristly, but it is also the first time an orca has been documented chowing down on a great white shark solo.

Dr. Towner's research explains that in previous encounters, six orcas worked together to corral and eat great white sharks.

Killer whale swimming in the ocean.
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There is a reason why orcas might be targeting great white sharks.

Dr. Towner reveals that the orcas seem particularly interested in consuming the great white shark's livers. She told Sky News that the shark's liver is "packed full of nutrients and lipids" and makes up an estimated one-third of its body weight.

Dr. Luke Rendell from the University of St Andrews also emphasized the nutritional factor of sharks to BBC News, stating, "A great white shark is a nice, big concentration of food, so it's perhaps unsurprising that some populations [of orcas], where these sharks occur in sufficient numbers, have learned to exploit that."

However, this unusual phenomenon might not be all good. Orcas' recent interest in great white sharks might reduce shark populations in coastal areas.

Researchers currently do not understand what drives orcas to behave this way. Still, Dr. Towner told BBC News it's clear that "human activities, like climate change and industrial fishing, are exerting significant pressures on our oceans."

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