The oceans cover over 70% of our planet. Therefore, whoever rules those oceans effectively rules the entire world.
Who would you think is the number one predator in the world? Most of us put the great white shark on that pedestal.
Measuring approximately 15 feet from tip to tail, it’s large and dangerous.
Not only that, but within the great shark’s mouth lurk around 300 sharp, serrated teeth that can easily tear through human flesh with a single bite.
Capable of taking on stingrays, other sharks, and even humpback whales, it seems there is little that would scare the great white shark or knock it off its apex predator.
What few people know, however, is that the great white has a secret fear that will cause it to run and hide.
Please keep reading to find out what it is and its effect on marine ecosystems across the world.
Orca Killer Whales vs Great White Sharks
If you put a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) into a head-to-head with a killer whale (Orcinus orca) who do you think would come out on top?
The great white has numerous advantages. First, it has more teeth for one. The great white has up to 3,000 teeth in its mouth at any one time, while the orca has a maximum of just 56. Not only that, but the great white’s teeth are bigger and sharper.
However, the killer whale takes the upper hand when it comes to size. Orca males grow to between 20 to 26 feet long, and the females aren’t far behind, averaging 18 to 22 feet in length. Great white sharks are considerably smaller, with few exceeding 16 feet.
Weight-wise, the orca also comes out on top, with an average weight of between four and eight tons. The average great white weighs rarely exceeds 2 tons, which explains why the great white might hesitate before confronting an orca.
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The orca’s teeth might not be as large or as sharp as the great white’s, but behind those teeth, it has one of the most powerful bite forces in the world.
Scientists estimate the orca’s bite force to be as much as 19,000 psi, which would make it greater than the crocodile’s!
The great white’s formidable teeth mean it probably doesn’t require much power, but with a bite force of around 4,000 psi, it’s got nothing on the orca.
Zoology professor Stephen Wroe of the University of New South Wales says the great white doesn’t need a powerful bite because “its extremely sharp serrated teeth require relatively little force to drive them through thick skin, fat, and muscle.”
While the orca relies on echolocation to detect and identify its prey, the great white shark relies on electricity.
Within the head of the great white is a network of organs known as the Ampullae of Lorenzini. Using these jelly-filled canals, a great white can detect tiny electric signals. For example, every creature in the ocean emits a faint electric field with every movement. That means a great white can sense a fish’s tail flick or a human’s muscle twitch and use it to pinpoint its next target.
Orcas use different hunting tactics to track down their prey. Like other members of the dolphin family, they rely on echolocation. A killer whale can emit a series of pulses and then use the echo to determine distance and shape.
According to some, the orca’s echolocation is so precise it can “identify tiny objects such as pennies resting on the floor of the ocean.”
Once the target has been identified, it’s all about getting there as quickly as possible. Despite their large size, killer whales are surprisingly agile and fast, reaching a top speed of around 56 km/h. Great white sharks are similarly swift and capable of maintaining moderate speeds for longer periods than the killer whale.
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Our two apex predators seem pretty well matched at this point in our orca vs great white head-to-head. The orca may have the upper hand in terms of size, but the great white shark’s sharp teeth and sophisticated system for locating prey mean it still has a fighting chance.
Great White Sharks vs Killer Whales
Humans are, by and large, much more frightened of an encounter with a great white than meeting a killer whale, and for very good reason. While great white sharks have been responsible for over 300 attacks on humans, there has never been a documented incident of an orca attacking a human in the wild.
Is that because orcas are more selective or less blood-thirsty than great whites, or is it simply that they employ different hunting techniques?
Great white sharks are solitary hunters. Generally speaking, they prefer to ambush their prey, advancing on it from the ocean’s depths. Capable of short bursts of speed, the great white explodes towards the surface, bumping and biting its prey simultaneously.
White sharks aren’t particularly fussy about their food and enjoy a varied diet of fish, dolphins, elephant seals, and other marine mammals.
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Due to their tendency to “examine solitary, vulnerable, and unfamiliar objects to determine whether or not they are edible” great white sharks do, on occasion, attack humans. It’s generally believed that these attacks are exploratory and occur as a result of mistaken identity rather than the shark specifically targeting the human.
On the other hand, killer whales have a very different set of hunting tactics. Often referred to as the wolves of the sea, orcas hunt in packs coordinating complex hunting strategies.
Killer whales adjust their hunting techniques according to the prey they are targetting. For instance, if they have their sights set on other whales, they will line up side by side and ram the whale, pushing it underwater. Other pack members will then attack the whale’s head, targeting the nutrient-rich tongue.
Orcas preying on seals will work together to create a large enough wave to wash their prey off its floating island of ice and into the water, where it becomes easy pickings for these powerful predators.
In Patagonia, killer whales beach themselves to catch the tasty sea lions lining the coast before wriggling their way back into the ocean.
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With so many hunting tactics at their disposal, the killer whale’s dominance in the ocean is difficult to dispute. However, even the great white finds their presence so intimidating that, when confronted by orcas, they “will immediately vacate their preferred hunting ground and will not return for up to a year.”
Do Orcas and Great Whites Meet in Nature?
The ocean’s a big place, but the paths of killer whales and great whites do, inevitably, cross from time to time. When that happens, it’s the orcas that are on the warpath, seeing the shark as potential prey. On the other hand, the great whites turn from predator to prey.
Up until a few years ago, the waters off the southern coast of South Africa were teeming with great white sharks. Every year, there would hundreds of sightings of the predators. In 2015, however, everything changed, and the number of white sharks in the area dwindled away.
At first, the Department of Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries was keen to blame “commercial overfishing and removal of prey species” for the sudden decline.
When five shark carcasses washed ashore in Gansbaai in 2017, their injuries suggested otherwise.
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Scientists found “no signs that fishing gear was responsible for the death” and were instead intrigued by the bite marks and damage done to the carcasses.
Each of the sharks had large tears between their pectoral fins and both the liver and heart were missing. This evidence soon made the orca the number-one suspect.
A similar phenomenon was observed in California, where researchers monitored white sharks around Southeast Farallon Island.
The researchers, led by Salvador Jorgensen, a marine ecologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, used a seal decoy to track the sharks’ movements.
The sharks had been feeding on elephant seals for months when, all of sudden, all 17 sharks disappeared within eight hours. They weren’t seen again for months.
The sudden exodus coincided with the arrival of two separate pods of killer whales.
Researchers noticed a pattern emerging – when the orcas arrive, the sharks disappear.
Are There Reports of Fights Between Orcas and Great Whites?
It quickly becomes a one-sided attack when it comes down to a fight between the orca vs great white. The solitary great white doesn’t stand a chance against a pack of highly coordinated and sophisticated predators like the orcas.
Orcas are such adept hunters that they don’t even need safety in numbers. The great whites of South Africa were chased out of their feeding grounds by just two orcas, known as Port and Starboard.
This pair of orcas is easily identifiable as the one’s dorsal fin droops to the right while the other’s leans to the left. Once thought to be part of a larger pod, these two killer whales dominate the food chain battle in False Bay, South Africa.
Port and Starboard aren’t the only killer whales targetting great white sharks. In 2015, a pod of orcas was filmed attacking a great white shark off the coast of South Australia.
There’s also evidence of killer whales using similar techniques to take down sevengill sharks off the New Zealand coast.
Why Do Killer Whales Attack Great Whites?
While some shark species are highly opportunistic, orcas orchestrate their attacks, apparently planning them carefully before executing them. They leave nothing to chance, especially not when it comes to a prey species as large and dangerous as the great white.
In a battle between orca vs great white, the killer whales stick to a precise hunting strategy. They first use their tails to stun the shark before turning it over onto its back.
Once upside down in the water, the shark goes into a state known as tonic immobility. This action causes temporary paralysis in the shark, giving the orcas ample opportunity to, quite literally, tear it limb from limb.
After the orcas have ripped the shark apart, they suck the livers from the open wound, securing a nutritious 600lb meal.
It is those calorie-rich livers these apex predators are targetting.
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Shark species like the great white and sevengill rely on their livers for buoyancy. Lacking the air bladders that other fish use to stay afloat, sharks “rely on a skeleton of cartilage and a liver filled with lighter-than-water oil to help beat gravity’s pull.”
As the shark’s liver is also its buoyancy aid, it’s relatively large, “making up 5% to 25% of its total body weight.” A 7,000 lb great white would, for instance, have a 1,000lb liver. That’s a big meal, even for a killer whale, especially as it contains around “400 liters of oil and 2 million kilocalories of energy.”
In other words, it’s the orca equivalent of a Bacon King sandwich from Burger King!
Are Orcas Dangerous to Humans?
If orcas are dangerous to white sharks, there’s every reason to believe they’d be downright fatal for humans. But, strangely enough, that’s not the case. White sharks attack people almost every year without fail, but there’s yet to be a verified attack involving orcas.
There have been a few reports of orcas attacking humans in captivity, but there’s no evidence of such aggression in the wild. Scientists believe this is purely because humans don’t taste very nice! However, other researchers maintain that this is more complicated than that. According to them, killer whales “follow rules that go beyond basic instinct and border on culture.”
Different pods “forage, communicate and navigate differently,” much like different cultures of people. Regardless of which pod they belong to, however, orcas maintain one clear and fast rule – that it’s just not acceptable to go after humans.
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There have been a few attacks in captivity, including the tragic incident involving Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in 2010.
Brancheau was a trainer at SeaWorld who’d developed a close bond with the killer whale, Tilikum. However, one fateful day, Tilikum grabbed Brancheau, pulling her into the pool and holding her underwater until she died.
This incident inspired many changes at SeaWorld, and “no interaction between humans and orcas is permitted.” Although heart-breaking, many believe the attack to be unintentional – “a case of play getting out of hand.” Others maintain that, although intentional, such attacks are never malicious.
Howard Garrett of the non-profit organization Orca Network believes Tilikum lashed out in a moment of frustration caused primarily from being “confined in small concrete tanks, and hand-fed instead of being allowed to hunt.”
The great white shark is a powerful predator that most people fear more than anything else in the ocean.
However, for the great white, there’s another predator out there that’s even more frightening. It comes wrapped in a sleek black and white outfit, and it hunts in highly coordinated packs.
The killer whale may be harmless to humans, but to the great white shark, it’s so terrifying it will abandon the best feeding grounds for months on end to avoid it.
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Surprising though it may be, in a battle between the orca and great white, the oversized dolphin dressed up like a police car wins every time.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.