Why Do Orcas Hate Great White Sharks So Much?
July 19, 2016
Let’s take a trip back in time.
No, not to a time before hunting decimated whale populations all over the world (although you’d read that post, wouldn’t you? Of course you would, who wouldn’t?).
Let’s go back to elementary school. So, not quite as painful, but almost.
You’re swaying calmly on the swings when the biggest, toughest kid in school strolls by. But you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’ve never bothered him so there’s nothing to fear. Plus, he looks harmless enough, although you did hear about that one time when he was playing with his food in the cafeteria…
Suddenly another tough kid rolls onto the scene, except this one’s not so much tough as is just plain mean. He’s all teeth and he never clips his fingernails, so you just know he’s got a screw loose.
Kid number 1 spies kid number 2. For a second you think that the calmness of kid number 1 will defuse the situation.
That’s when both kids spring into action.
The Great White Hype
The great white shark suits everyone’s version of what the ocean’s most fearsome predator is all about. Their terrifying dead eyes and angular snouts have haunted our nightmares ever since Steven Spielberg screwed up everyone’s beach holidays forever when Jaws came out in 1975.
However, the truth is that great white sharks might be all talk.
White sharks are known to prey almost exclusively on smaller animals such as seals, fish, and other sharks. Other sharks! Maybe that’s why great whites tend to keep to themselves. To continue with the schoolyard theme, great white sharks are clearly bullies who have no friends.
Natural Born Killer Whales
The killer whale might be the kid who’s earned his reputation for some reason or another in the schoolyard, but when it comes to great whites, the killer’s reputation is welcomed by all the nerds who live in mortal fear of the bully.
Yes, in this case, humans are the nerds.
While it’s pretty easy to find examples of cowardly great white attacks on humans in the wild (I’ll let you google that one for yourself, I just ate breakfast), most scientists agree that orcas have never attacked a human being in the wild. Even a relatively recent incident in New Zealand where a diver, tethered to a fishing catch bag of some sort, was pulled underwater by an orca stealing the fish, is considered an unfortunate incident, but hardly a real attack.
The diver was fine, by the way – I know you were worried.
Attacks by agitated and mentally unstable orcas in captivity is a different story (one we looked at a few weeks ago), but in the marine schoolyard, the orca whale has been known to stick up for the scrawny weakling in the park (again, that’s you. And me, of course.)
Bloodsport (But With Orcas & Sharks)
And when the killer whale has had enough of the white shark stealing lunch money and the occasional limb?
“When hunting sharks, killer whales always end up flipping the shark upside down, regardless of how the attack starts. When flipped upside down, the shark goes into a paralyzed state known as ‘tonic immobility’ and can’t fight back, which suggests that the orcas understand a little something about shark biology.”
That’s from Emily at Marine Science Today, and let me be the first to say holy cow.
In fact, orca “screams” are even used to repel sharks in Australia as part of a $16 million dollar “shark hazard mitigation program”.
Young killer whales will even observe the brutal efficiency with which the adults tear apart their opponents so they can learn proper techniques.
So why do killer whales hunt and attack sharks?
Some simply chalk it up to food supply. “The marine world can be a difficult place to find food. When there is an opportunity, an orca will take it.” That’s Dr. Ingrid Visser, a scientist who’s been studying orca behaviour since 1992.
Perhaps they attack for food. Perhaps they attack just because they know they’ll win.
In any case, I know who’s side I’m on.
Note: thankfully (or not) there are no known species of sharks near J-Pod’s coastal BC home.
Note #2: I still can’t believe all the movie-related subheadings in this post worked so well.