Whale Kills Shark, Setting Biology on Its Ear

A 1997 encounter was caught on tape, challenging shark's supremacy of the seas.

November 27, 2009, 4:42 PM

Nov. 28, 2009 — -- This story and the related video retell part of what you can see in the documentary "The Whale That Ate Jaws" on the National Geographic Channel.

It tells the true story of a 1997 encounter between a great white shark and an orca killer whale. Partially captured on film, it was witnessed by a boat-full of people on a whale watching trip near the Farallon Islands, 26 miles west of San Francisco.

Our report that follows is written in the same Old English verse form used in the great medieval epic, "Beowulf."

Readers may remember that Beowulf himself was said to be a formidable swimmer beneath the waves.

What could be worse
           than the great white?

The nightmare shark,
           the master monster,

Gobbler of gullible
           bathers at beaches,

Cruelest of killers
          (as "Jaws" has burned into our brains)

Row upon row
           of flesh-tearing teeth.

A fearless bully
           for he fears none

Of the other creatures
           in the sea. Or does he?

Well ....

One sunny day
           near California's coastal islands.

Where about a hundred great whites gather
           for two months every fall,

To dine on the sumptuous
           sun-bathing seals,

A tourist boat chanced
           on a surprising display.

At this point an orca whale surfaces next to the boat with a shark in its mouth. "He is eating the shark!! a woman is heard shouting on the film shot that day. "Oh, my God...this is really, really strange!"

A biologist was radioed.
           He rushed to the scene.

When he got there, the great white
           beast was just scattered

Gobbets of flesh
           floating like flotsam.

But what had happened?!
           It soon became clear,

The fatuous fish
           had met his match.

A magnificent mammal --
           orca, the killer whale,

Apex predator,
           the "Wolf of the Sea"

Had dispatched the fish-brained
           and shameful shark,

Who'd been loitering -- lurking
           near the land-lubbers boat.

The captain of the whale-watching boat, Mick Menigoz, told National Geographic, "All of a sudden, one of the orcas made a b-line in this direction! There was a splash, and then nothing."

"There was no blood, there was no thrashing around," naturalist Mary Jane Schramm, who was on the boat that day, told National Geographic. "It was only when the killer whale emerged... coming back toward the boat, carrying the shark in its mouth...that's when we knew what had actually gone down."

"This orca came up next to the boat, holding this what now appeared to be a dead white shark by the back of the neck," Menigoz said, "and held it up for us like a cat with a mouse, you know, just showing off."

Biologist Peter Pyle was baffled. "It was unprecedented. It kind of blew our minds. It was a complete surprise to us to see an orca take a white shark. We just had no idea that could happen," he told National Geographic.

'Twas the first time ever
           in the annals of science,

A great white had been done in
           by another sea denizen.

Along all the West Coast,
           anchor-folk anguished:

"This may be the first time anyone's
           actually seen it happen!"

Soon, scientists worldwide
           scrambled and studied,

Followed sharks and orcas
           year after year,

And finally found
           How this marvelous mammal

With its prodigious brain
           has shark sushi for lunch:

Biologist Ingrid Visser told National Geographic, "The orca are very, very smart and they'll look at a particular prey item and they'll understand: 'OK, I need to attack in such and such a way.' So, it's just like us, really. I mean, you'll have different skill sets for different situations."

In Argentina? They sneak up
           on seals on the sand.

Antarctica? Make waves, wobble
           the seal into the water.

New Zealand? Blow bubbles
           to root out a ray.

But sharks? The fiercest
           of fish to filet?

Great White Shark Killed by Killer Whale Sends Biologists Back to Drawing Board

"There's different populations of orca around the world that specialize in hunting for sharks and they hunt in a number of different ways," Visser told National Geographic. "They will corral the sharks up, and if they're small enough, just come in and grab them. But it is dangerous for them to hunt sharks, and they do it very carefully."

Especially with great whites,
           whom, they noticed, the orca

had held upside down
           for a full fifteen minutes

Before chowing down.
          It turns out that sharks

Go into a trance
           When they're held topsy turvey!

Biologist Samuel Gruber explained to National Geographic, "The animal goes into this sleep, basically unconscious. ... If you turn a white shark upside down, it probably can't continue to breathe like that."

They found that, when the orca
           bumps the great white, flipping it

Onto its back,
           it's a pussycat, slumbering

Sweet... for the sampling.

"Their learning abilities are so great," Gruber said, "that if one of them happened to do it and see that they [the sharks] kind of freeze or go into this state, they could communicate it to the other whale and they might get up a hunting technique that does this."

Oh, and one other thing happened
          the day of that attack:

Those hundred great whites
           who were feeding and feasting?

They all fled in a flash
           a great crowd of cowards --

Not a fin to be seen:

"We didn't see any white sharks and we knew on the island that they were gone. ... They were more afraid of being there than they were about missing an entire season of feeding; that's pretty remarkable," Pyle said.

So there you have it:
           the great white can be frightened;

They get out of Dodge
           when this sheriff's in town.

The great white may be fearsome
           when feeding unfettered

On innocent ladies
           lolling in shallows.

It takes this exuberant
           dapper wave-dancer In tuxedo dress,

This elegant leaper,
           light-hearted leviathan

(and killer of killers)
          To outwit a great white.

Scientific Notes on the Orca Whales' 'Prodigious Brain' and More

Orca's brain, of course, has exceptional

Of the insular cortex,
          temporal operculum,

And cortical limbic system --
           as every schoolchild knows.

And their language, say linguists,
           is matched in complexity

Only by humans' --
           though we still can't decipher it.

And believe it or not,
           these bright killers have culture --

Different cultural groups and...

Biologist Visser explained, "If you look at the definition of culture and you look a what's going on with these different populations of orca [whales] and the way they specialize in hunting, you can definitely say they have a culture... although it's something usually associated with humans."

Orcas -- like people --
          have different cultures:

Fish-eating cultures
          who educate their young

On how to catch fish;
           mammal-eating cultures

That teach pups how to capture
           seals and sea lions.

And how scared were the great whites
           when they fled from that scene?

Of the orca's attack?
          With telemetry tags,

The scientists followed
          one of the fleeing

Fiends and it's fellows
           who were finally found more

Than a thousand miles off.

Gruber showed National Geographic, using a laptop with telemetry tracking graph, that "The shark went down to 500 meters -- that's 1,500 feet -- that's a long way down. So that was a traumatic event for these sharks, who would normally be staying around there for the season."

"The Whale That Ate Jaws" premieres on the National Geographic Channel Saturday Nov. 28, at 8 p.m. ET.

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