Do Orcas Eat Sharks?

Just like the lion is the king of the jungle, we often think that sharks, particularly the infamous great white, are the out-and-out rulers of the ocean.

By comparison, for most people, the orca whale has a relatively peaceful reputation. After all, while the great white is famous for the frightening movie Jaws, the orca is the friendly star of Free Willy.

So asking, “do orcas eat sharks?” may seem like it’s a redundant question. However, we’re going to tell you that the answer is surprising – Yes, orcas eat sharks, and often it’s the fearsome great white they’re attacking!

The other name for the orca is the killer whale, and we’re going to see that when they meet an unlucky shark, they can really live up to this name. 

We’re going to find out that orcas target sharks specifically to eat one part of their body (the liver) and will hunt in packs to corner and kill their prey with ruthless efficiency.

So, even the most fearsome of sharks have natural predators. Let’s find out exactly why the orca takes them on and how they win.

Do Orcas Eat Sharks?

The orca (Orcinus orca), aka the killer whale, is known by most people for its distinctive black and white markings and starring role in movies and marine theme parks.

However, the toothed whale, which can be found living in all of the world’s oceans, is also a highly effective hunter.

Do Orcas Eat Sharks

While the main food for orcas is fish, smaller marine mammals like seals or dolphins, seabirds, and even an occasional moose, scientists have discovered that the killer whale can hunt and kill even the most notorious of predatory sharks, including the great white.

Orcas hunt as a pack which lets them take on prey, including whales or sharks, which are usually regarded as highly aggressive. By working together, the orcas can overwhelm the shark, kill it and take advantage of its valuable nutrition.

So while a single orca may probably not be able to take out a fully grown great white, if the whales work together, they can beat almost anything alive in our seas. Truly this makes them one of the very top predators in the ocean.

Why Do Orcas Eat Sharks?

Orcas eat sharks for food, but there’s much more to it than that.

If it wasn’t surprising enough to learn that orcas can attack and eat huge sharks, you’ll probably be shocked to hear that, in most cases, the whale leaves the shark’s body almost entirely intact after they’ve killed them.

Why do orcas eat sharks

While they’re not killing the shark for fun, it appears that much of its meat isn’t appetizing to the whale. Instead, the orcas mainly target one specific and highly nutritious part of the shark.

For decades mysteriously dismembered shark bodies have been found washed up on beaches or discovered floating dead in the sea. Initially, what had caused the animal’s unusual death wasn’t completely clear, although many marine biologists believed that orcas were responsible.

In 2017 marine scientists working in South Africa were able to conduct autopsies on the mutilated bodies of multiple broad nose seven-gill sharks (Notorynchus cepedianus) found on the beaches of False Bay near Cape Town and great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) that had washed up at Gansbaai and Struisbaai.

As they inspected the sharks, the scientists discovered that each one had incredibly had its liver removed in a precision attack that orcas could have only made. The rest of the enormous fish’s body had then been left to rot.

The bodies each had a wound on their lower side close to their pectoral fins, which, once made, allowed the orca to squeeze the prized liver out of the shark to be gorged on.

Shark bodies were also found, with the heart, stomach, or testes missing and the liver.

Why Do Orcas Eat Shark Liver?

Orcas have astonishingly learned to target sharks for their livers to take advantage of the highly nutritious substances they contain.

Shark’s livers are a mineral and vitamin-rich package full of valuable protein, oils, and fats and can make up an incredible 25% of its total body mass. They also contain high concentrations of squalene, a powerful natural hydrocarbon with a wide range of physiological uses inside all animals, including the orca whale.

By eating the shark’s liver, the orcas receive a high-calorie meal that, per kilogram, can’t be matched nutritionally anywhere else.  

Orcas are enormous animals that need a lot of energy and nutrition to keep going. In the open ocean, those kinds of meals can be hard to come across.

The orcas have learned precisely where the highest-value parts of the shark are located. It also helps that the liver is buoyant in the water once removed, so it is easy to get to while the body sinks.

Just like we humans may only find one part of an animal to our tastes, they leave the rest of the shark’s body to nature.

It could also be that the orcas strike the most important part and then exit the scene quickly before other opportunistic predators arrive.

What Types of Sharks Do Orcas Eat?

The most well-known shark that orcas eat is undoubtedly the great white shark. In addition to incidents in South African waters, orcas have been observed attacking great white sharks at the Farallon islands off California and Neptune islands off Australia, both famous locations for cage diving with sharks. 

What type of sharks do orcas eat

However, as killer whales live in all of the oceans around the world, in a vast range of different water temperatures and environments, it’s safe to say that, given a chance, an orca will target pretty much any shark.

Although liver-targeting attacks on the largest sharks are not necessarily a common occurrence, orcas have been observed by scientists attacking a wide range of shark species. In addition, smaller sharks are believed to make up a reasonably large part of the orca’s regular diet.

In terms of the bigger and more well-known sharks, in the waters around New Zealand, orcas have been observed hunting thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus) and smooth-hammerheads (Sphyrna zygaena).

Other studies in this area have recorded the whale preying on the shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus), and blue sharks (Prionace glauca).

Even the biggest fish in the oceans, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), isn’t immune from the attack of a hungry orca. In 1992 two orcas were able to kill an eight-meter whale shark off Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico.

How Do Orcas Hunt Sharks?

Having discovered that orcas attack and eat sharks, the obvious question is how? How do the whales successfully manage to kill the famously aggressive killer great white shark?

It is only relatively recently that scientists have been able to piece together all the information and, using drone photography in 2022, finally and definitively recorded orcas attacking great white sharks.

How do orcas hunt sharks

Until the complete filmed evidence, there were only anecdotal stories and partial filmed information to answer how orcas hunt sharks.

For example, in 1997, it was reported that a 20-foot orca successfully attacked and killed a 10-foot great white shark off the San Francisco coast, potentially while teaching its calf to hunt.

The orca was said to strike the shark from below to stun it and then roll it over to hold it upside-down near the water’s surface to keep the fish paralyzed. 

In this state, the shark could no longer breathe, eventually suffocating, allowing the orca’s calf to eat what it wanted in relative leisure.

However, to target larger sharks, it was believed that groups of orcas have learned to use their echolocation to detect their prey and then act as a pack to defeat the shark.

This was dramatically observed from the surface off the Neptune Islands, South Australia, in 2014.

Groups of orcas had been seen surrounding a shark and swimming underneath it to push it toward the surface, limiting the space it had to move in.

Like the single San Francisco orca, the pack of whales rammed the shark or stuck it with their enormous tails to attempt to flip the animal upside down onto its back to paralyze it. 

The whales held the unlucky shark in this position and used its tonic immobility against it to attack it without needing to worry about its vicious jaws filled with teeth.

With the shark immobilized, an orca stuck the belly and nudged the body to ease the valuable liver out. Thanks to its positive buoyancy, the liverl helpfully floats to the surface to be eaten.

The final confirmation of this method came in May 2022 when orcas were filmed off Hartenbos Beach on the southern coast of South Africa. 

A drone pilot recorded five orcas and captured one pushing a shark to the water’s surface. A helicopter immediately observed the whales killing two great white sharks and feeding on the livers.

Incredibly, the sharks were seen unsuccessfully attempting tight turns around the whales to try and evade them. This is the exact same behavior attempted by seals and other mammals trying to escape from the sharks attacking them.

In other incidents in South Africa, researchers have observed orcas working together to apply force on the shark’s pectoral fins to rupture the pectoral girdle to gain ready access to the liver.

Are Sharks Scared of Orcas?

It has been proven that sharks are scared of orcas!

Scientists have identified tagged sharks fleeing an area when orcas make an appearance.

For example, in False Bay, South Africa, an increased occurrence of orcas and subsequent attacks on broad-nose seven-gill sharks since 2015 has caused the remaining population to flee the area for months at a time.

Gansbaai’s once-famous great white shark diving location is now more commonly known for orca sightings, while the sharks exhibit large-scale avoidance of the area.

Are Sharks Scared of Orcas

Researchers report that the more the orcas visit, the longer the South African great white sharks stay away.

Great white sharks tagged by researchers in the Pacific were also found to leave when orcas enter their area.

“When confronted by orcas, white sharks will immediately vacate their preferred hunting ground and will not return for up to a year, even though the orcas are only passing through,” said marine ecologist Salvador Jorgensen of Monterey Bay Aquarium.

He continues, “It turns out these risk effects are very strong even for large predators like white sharks—strong enough to redirect their hunting activity to less preferred but safer areas.”

Scientists believe that removing sharks from an ecosystem, even temporarily, could have significant adverse effects. 

Species that the sharks typically prey on may be able to increase in population destructively, or the shark’s movement to another location might cause increased and unsustainable pressure on the prey in that area.

In South Africa, researchers worry that without great white sharks, the Cape Fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus) population will explode, causing a negative cascade effect on the endangered African Penguins (Spheniscus demersus) and fish stocks.


The detail of how orcas eat sharks is fascinating and quite gruesome.

Orcas routinely eat small sharks as part of their regular diet, but the surprise is that the whales can successfully attack large predatory sharks, including the fearsome great white.

Acting as a pack, orcas can drive large sharks toward the surface before striking them to stun them.

Orcas routinely eat small sharks as part of their regular diet.

The whales then twist the shark upside down to paralyze it for long enough for the shark to suffocate. They then make the final attack to retrieve their target – the highly nutritious shark liver.

Hearing this, it probably isn’t surprising that sharks have been shown to avoid orcas and will leave their favored feeding grounds for months or even entire seasons if the killer whales appear.

So, while sharks may seem like the kings of the oceans, even they have a predator that is out to get them!

British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.

Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.

When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.

Leave a Comment