First Observations Of White Sharks Attacking A Live Humpback Whale

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Sharks eating whales isn’t exactly new- it’s the circle of life, after all. But to date, white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) feeding events involving large whales have largely been described only in terms of observed scavenging events.

Surprisingly, the legendary great white shark is quite the elusive animal with many secrets of their basic life history still being uncovered. Found swimming in coastal waters throughout the world, they grow up to an average of 15 feet (4.6 meters) in length and can weigh up to 5,000 lbs (2268 kg). These highly adapted predators tend to hunt for fish, sea lions, seals, small toothed whales, and even sea turtles. And while they are the stars of most summer blockbuster movies, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed them as Vulnerable (VU). Due to their populations decreasing due to a myriad of environmental threats, such as overfishing and gill nets, great white sharks are in trouble… and scientists are scrambling to uncover their secrets before it’s too late.

It’s hard to find a single shark species in a big, wide ocean. But one place where you can always see sharks? At a dead whale’s carcass. The decaying corpse is usually a dinner bell for a range of animals, great white sharks especially, as they are often seen scavenging on the floating body. Whale carcasses are the single largest source of carrion in marine ecosystems, thought to constitute an important part of large white shark foraging ecology. It is believed that whale carcasses influence many aspects of the life history of the sharks, including adult migrations. However, to date, no part of this white shark feeding event has been described involving a live whale.

That is, until a recent study published in the Marine & Freshwater Research journal. The authors provide what may be the first published description of white sharks attacking and killing a live humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Humpback whales are known for their magical songs in every ocean, where they feed on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish. These large whales can measure up to 62.5 ft (19 m) and weigh up to 40 tons, meaning they make one heck of a meal for sharks once they die. The Oceans Research Institute’s team was alerted of an entangled humpback whale offshore at The Point, Mossel Bay, South Africa. The whale wasn’t doing well, as it had an emaciated body condition, a very concave dorsal ridge, and it was covered with a large number of barnacles and whale lice.

The attack was eye-witnessed on the Oceans Research Institute’s research vessel and by the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) Station 15 crew, who observed the whale for 30 minutes before two white sharks approached it within an hour of each other. The sharks were both estimated to be within 11.5–13 ft (3.5–4 m) in total length (TL) based on boat length comparisons and later confirmed via imaging software. Over the next 90 minutes, both white sharks approached the whale and each attacked it while still alive. The first shark positioned its initial attack from the rear of the whale, targeting the left flank behind the pectoral fin. However, although it bit the whale and a large amount of blood was released, it immediately let it go and swam away without removing any much blubber or muscle. It waited for about 42 minutes to allow the whale to lose blood and slow its swimming patterns before biting beneath the tailstock. But like the bite before, it let go and swam away without removing any meat or blubber. It was then that the second shark (at about 13 ft/4m in length) showed up and took this opportunity to do the same thing, scaring off the smaller shark. After these two back-to-back bites, the whale stayed very still at the surface until the second shark bumped its snout. The whale tried to dive, dipping its head under the water’s surface and arching its body but unable to move its tail. This new shark took advantage of that and bit the tail stock again, this time sharking its head, but released the whale once blood spurted out. That last bite sealed the fate of the whale, and it sank three minutes after that final bite. The second shark stayed until the whale sank, but both were not observed again in Mossel Bay over the following weeks.

The attack in the article displayed new-to-us behaviours, including evidence of the ‘bite and spit’ tactic, rarely described in non-pinniped-related white shark feeding events before. Back in 1985, ichthyologist John McCosker proposed the so-called “Bite and Spit” hypothesis, in which a great white shark gives its prey an incapacitating bite and then releases it, waiting for the animal to bleed to death until it returns to feed. While this type of interaction between white sharks and humpback whales is likely to have existed long before it was sighted, and the live whale in this scenario was in very bad shape, it does give us a glimpse into the rarely observed interactions between white sharks and live whales.

Source: Forbes

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