Lone killer whale kills and eviscerates great white shark in under 2 minutes in ‘unprecedented’ attack

Scientists have published dramatic footage of the moment a lone killer whale hunted and ate a great white shark off the coast of South Africa, in the first documented incident of its kind.

Researchers said the “unprecedented” display of predatory prowess unfolded in a matter of just two minutes, from the moment the orca struck the shark on its pectoral fin to the extraction of the fish’s nutrient-rich liver.

The attack occurred off the coast of Mossel Bay in South Africa on 18 June 2023 and involved a killer whale who has previously been observed by scientists, nicknamed Starboard, attacking a juvenile great white shark.

“The astonishing predation, off the coast of Mossel Bay, South Africa, represents unprecedented behavior underscoring the exceptional proficiency of the killer whale," said Dr Alison Towner from Rhodes University, who led an international research team on the discovery.

While it is not uncommon for orcas to hunt down large animals individually, and there are documented cases of killer whales predating great whites as a group, the Mossel Bay incident is the first time an orca has been recorded killing a great white shark on its own.

It offers insights into the predatory behavior of orcas, suggesting that their hunting strategy of plundering great whites for their livers could be driving sharks away from certain areas along the coast around Cape Town.

The video of Starboard single-handedly hunting down an 8.2ft juvenile great white shark was captured by a tourist boat passing closely at 2pm and the sequence of events was journaled and studied in the African Journal of Marine Science.

Almost an hour after arriving, Starboard appeared near the surface and at around 3pm the researchers and tourists witnessed the male orca grip the left pectoral fin of a shark and “thrust forward with the shark several times before eventually eviscerating it” within less than two minutes, it said.

A few moments later, it again emerged: this time with “a bloody piece of peach-coloured liver in its mouth”.

Starboard’s other male companion, Port, was around 329 feet away from the site of the attack and did not get involved.

“Killer whales, or orcas, usually team up when they hunt, although they can hunt solitarily,” Dr Towne said. “The unusual aspect was witnessing Starboard, the killer whale, hunting a white shark alone and in a remarkably rapid timeframe.”

The duo has been under scientists’ watch since they were seen in drone footage in 2022 working together to hunt down white sharks. Traveling vast distances along South Africa’s eastern coastline, reaching as far as Namibia, researchers believe they began targeting great whites as early as 2015. It wasn’t until 2022 that aerial footage documented the orcas killing a great white shark, according to Towner.

“This sighting revealed evidence of solitary hunting by at least one killer whale, challenging conventional cooperative hunting behaviors known in the region,” said Dr Towner.

“These are groundbreaking insights into the predatory behavior of this species,” she said. “The presence of these shark-hunting killer whales possibly ties into broader ecosystem dynamics. Rapid developments in this phenomenon make it challenging for science to keep pace.”

One of the scientists who witnessed the attack, Dr Primo Micarelli, a co-author of the new study from the Shark Studies Centre and Siena University, said: “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,” Mr Micarelli said.

The livers of great whites are massive organs, comprising about a third of their body mass, and rich in lipids. The orcas discard the remainder of the carcass, exhibiting selective feeding behavior observed in other carnivores like harbor seals, brown bears, and wolves.