More Shark-Chat: A Pox On the Orcas

Yes, yes, a lot of people know by now that killer whales occasionally gang-up to hunt smaller great white sharks in various oceanic habitats, bounce them around until they are as stunned as your average mullet, and then extract their livers for a briny amuse-bouche. SOME people think that this fairly rare behavior indicates that killer whales are superior to great white sharks in every way, but those people would be quite mistaken.

First, orcas hunting great white sharks is a relatively rare phenomenon, as far as we know. It certainly happens, but then again it’s no great accomplishment for two or three behemoth killer whales to outmaneuver a small great white; pack animals have distinct advantages in such situations.

We have no evidence, however, of killer whales preying upon larger, more experienced great white sharks, and this is where we may point out the advantages owned by the real masters of the sea. Scientific and anecdotal evidence point to the fact that large white sharks are hyper-aware of their surroundings, and when you are blessed with sensory mechanisms like the ampullae of lorenzini, your undersea “surroundings” extend for miles. Evolution has instilled within the great white shark many gifts of discernment, but one of those gifts is the ability to detect the distinct sounds made by killer whales whenever a pod of those crafty uber-dolphins enters a particular oceanic neighborhood inhabited by great white sharks.

Sonar studies undertaken by researchers at the dreaded (and dreadfully beautiful) Farallon Islands off San Francisco have demonstrated that large great white sharks immediately submerge to deeper waters and leave the vicinity when the sounds of talkative orcas are first encountered. Sometimes, the great whites do not return to such hunting grounds for an entire season or two. That’s pretty savvy.

Hey, being able to employ an ounce of prevention to avoid lugging a pound of cure is indicative of its own superiority. There are, after all, plenty of fish in the sea for hungry great white sharks. And orcas apparently have such big, blabbering, arrogant mouths that they announce themselves before entering an area, giving experienced sharks plenty of time to make tracks and avoid potential confrontation.

This is where sharks have the evolutionary advantage. They are SMART FISH, baby. They can dive as deep as they please (within reason) and stay down as long as they feel like it. They don’t need to come up for air like those mouth-breather orcas. Great white sharks don’t drown in water. Orcas do.

As for what might happen if a truly big great white (20 ft. +) were caught “unawares” by a lone adult killer whale, don’t be too quick to bet on the mammal. Again, a big great white would already hear the presence of an orca in its domain and dive out of reach, but tail-fin to tail-fin, a large great white can maneuver with stunning agility of its own, at need, and one powerful bite landed upon the tail or lower extremity of an orca would so some serious—potentially even crippling—damage.

In other words: great white sharks are greater than killer whales. And I am unanimous in that assessment. So there.


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