Great white sharks are the top marine predator of the ocean and one of the most dangerous sharks that exist, but even these predators become the hunted.
With all of the strange and wonderful creatures inhabiting the oceans of the world, which one has the gall and sheer audacity to hunt these hunters? Below we look at what animal preys on great white sharks.
Although great white sharks are the top predators in many oceans, they also fall prey to killer whales and humans.
Great white sharks are apex predators, but they have few natural predators.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, have been known to hunt and kill great whites.
Humans also hunt great whites, mainly for their fins and teeth, and accidental bycatch also occurs.
These pressures have contributed to the decline of great white populations.
Pop culture, nature documentaries, and public opinion paint great whites as the biggest and “baddest” fish in the ocean; however, they are not above being eaten themselves.
But how exactly do killer whales and humans kill great white sharks? How do great whites protect themselves? And how many are left?
Do Great White Sharks Have Predators?
As tough as it is to believe, great white sharks, one of the ocean’s apex predators, do indeed have natural predators.
When we think of great whites, we often imagine a 16 foot long, 4 000 pound monster, but we often forget that great whites don’t start this way.
Although adult great whites have few predators to worry about, they are only around 3.3 feet long when they are born. This size is optimal for opportunistic predators (including other sharks). However, as they grow, the number of natural predators decreases.
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When fully grown, great white shark predators are limited to other, bigger great whites, killer whales, or humans.
Although there are some instances of killer whales hunting and killing great white sharks, this is not a common occurrence of which we are aware, but rather the behaviors of specialized shark-hunting orcas.
This behavior was first recorded in 1997 in the Farallon Islands. Then, in 2017 and 2018, killer whales began preying on white sharks in False Bay.
Humans, by far, constitute the most prominent threat to great white sharks of all their natural enemies.
However, other marine animals may attack a great white shark, but not necessarily in a predatory capacity. An important note is that there is not much in the line of hard evidence, but it could happen that these animals would attack a great white shark.
Some of these animals include:
- Sperm whales, under very rare situations
- Other shark species during feeding frenzies, or if they feel threatened
- Giant and colossal squids. Although some scientific evidence shows great whites moving to areas where these squids occur, they may not engage them.
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Orca And Great White Sharks
Two megafaunas of the marine environment, orcas and white sharks, are awesome in their function and design, and both are critical to the ocean’s marine environment as the top predators.
A Brief Overview Of Killer Whales
- Orcas (Orcinus orca) are referred to as “killer whales” and frequently live up to this name. Orcas were seen hunting whales and other large prey, garnering them the name of “whale killer” by archaic sailors.
- These marine mammals are the largest dolphins. The largest kiuller whale was 32 feet and weighed 22 000 pounds.
- The average male, North Atlantic orcas, are between 19 and 22 feet long and weigh 9570 pounds, while females are 18 feet long and weigh between 5 100 and 8 200 pounds.
- Killer whales have between 40 and 56 conical teeth, which are not replaced.
- Killer whales reach speeds of up to 34.8 mph while hunting.
- Killer whales have many prey species, including seals and sea lions, fish, other dolphins, porpoises, whales (large and small), birds, octopuses, squid, rays, and sharks.
- Killer whales also sometimes specialize in a particular prey species and stick with that almost exclusively.
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A Brief Look At Great White Sharks
- Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), also called white sharks, reach 15 to 16 feet as females and 11 to 13 feet as males.
- Some of the largest fish grow up to 20 feet, but that’s less of a norm.
- Most weigh between 1500 and 4000 pounds; some reach 5000 pounds.
- They can reach speeds of up to 35 mph.
- Great whites have 300 teeth in 7 rows which are replaced throughout their lives.
- Great whites prey on seals (and sea lions), dolphins, fish, squid, and other sharks.
- Although believed to be solitary, researchers have observed great whites hunting in groups, where they cooperate and share meals.
- Great whites are mostly found in temperate and subtropical waters and migrate long distances.
- Great white sharks are intelligent creatures with highly developed hearing, smell, sight, touch, taste, and electromagnetism.
Do Great White Sharks Fear Orcas?
Killer whales have such an intimidating presence in the ocean that great whites actively avoid them. When a killer whale enters a popular great white feeding area, the great whites vacate the vicinity.
A study in 2009 that was headed up by Salvador Jorgensen, a senior researcher at Monterey Bay Aquarium that was monitoring a group of 17 tagged great white sharks in the Farallon Islands area, noted their swift departure from the popular feeding area.
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This behavior was considered unusual because sharks in that area usually stay for several weeks, months, or up to a year.
They concluded that their premature departure (through collaborating other data of marine species movements) was when killer whales entered the area, the great whites left.
Even if the orcas only remained for a few hours, the sharks still left and remained away for the rest of the season.
Other sharks entered the area, sensed that killer whales were there, and quickly moved away. It could be that great whites pick up on the scent of killer whales or other sharks which fled the area.
Scientists have identified a phenomenon known as a “landscape of fear,” which happens when an apex predator enters an area. All other species adopt cautious behaviors; this includes other predators leaving the area.
The term “fear” is probably incorrect; however, great white sharks avoid confrontations with killer whales. They both hunt similar prey sources and therefore compete with one another. During these competitions, killer whales come off on top, and great whites know this, so they choose the better side of caution and get out ASAP.
How Do Orcas Kill Great White Sharks?
When a killer whale kills great white sharks, they target the fatty, oily liver. Killer whales work together in pairs or pods to surround a great white shark. They then close in, targeting the white shark’s live region (located just behind the pectoral fin).
When in range, the killer whale takes a bite out of the shark’s side, retrieving the liver by squeezing it out of the wound.
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Other times, a pair or pod of orcas will gang up on a great white, each grabs hold of a side (usually the pectoral fins), and each pulls in the opposite direction, splitting the skin and granting access to the liver.
When hunting other sharks, on very rare occasions they will maneuver the shark to the surface, where they bash it on the head with their tails.
Some orcas have even learned that flipping a shark upside down enters into a catatonic state called “tonic immobility,” which allows the orcas to bite out the liver with few issues.
In 1997, one of the first observations of two orcas killing a young great white shark was made by whale watchers off Farallon Island. The great white approached the orcas to get at the sea lion they were eating and the orcas retaliated by bashing the shark until it died, then eating its liver.
A great whites liver accounts for approximately 28% of its total body weight. White sharks lack swim bladders, so the oils contained in the liver (around 106 gallons) assist sharks in swimming.
These highly nutritious organs (white shark livers contain about 90% high-energy lipids) are excellent sources of calories for orcas and are therefore prized.
The rest of the shark is discarded for the crabs and other detritivores. Or, to our scientific delight, to wash up on the beaches as a testament to the incredible power of the real top ocean predators, the killer whale.
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How Do Humans Kill Great White Sharks?
Humans are the planet’s apex predators and supersede all food chains for better or worse. We prey on what we want and have further impacts than many realize.
Humans are great white sharks’ top predators. We directly affect their population numbers by killing them, but we also do so indirectly.
The various ways we humans predate great whites include:
The Impacts Of Fishing On Great White Sharks
One of the ways we hunt great whites is through fishing. Great whites are considered good to eat and are commercially caught to supply various markets.
They are, however, also caught for the esteem of the angler. Great whites are one of the ocean’s top predators and are viewed as prized sports fish (in places where they are not protected). Many anglers, therefore, want to feel the “rush” of catching one.
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Great white sharks’ teeth also fetch high prices as jewelry and decorations.
We can break fishing down into:
- Direct, when great whites are actively caught for their meat/prestige/teeth, etc.
- Indirect, when great whites are caught as by-catch. This by-catch includes trawlers and other commercial fishing vessels, shark nets, gill nets, and other deterrents.
Another issue that threatens and kills great whites is overfishing. We compete with great whites by removing prey sources, leaving them without sufficient food.
This shortage results in white sharks leaving the area searching for other prey or dying out.
- Poaching. Some cultures prize shark fins and other body parts and even catch these fish illegally to obtain the desired parts.
Fishing has a tremendous impact on shark communities and great white populations. Sharks caught as by-catch, and those poached are the worst issues when fishing, as the other forms are generally regulated by legislation.
The Impact Of Boats And Other Vessels On Great Whites
Human recreation, commercial, transit, and other vessels’ marine activities also impact white shark populations. Great white sharks occasionally fall victim to a boat’s propeller that slices a gash into the dorsal region (usually).
These wounds are often severe, and even when not immediately life-threatening, the shark could be left debilitated, no longer able to hunt, or vulnerable to predation.
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The Impacts Of Pollution On Great Whites
The most devastating impact humans have by far is pollution in all of its forms.
By polluting the ocean, we directly kill sharks and kill off their prey sources or poison those sources, resulting in bio-accumulation and, eventually death of the sharks.
Marine pollution includes chemicals, wastewater, sewage, plastics, radioactive waste, oil, and more.
Climate change and ocean acidification (extra carbon dioxide dissolved by the ocean) are additional risks for sharks.
As the temperature rises, the ice caps melt, and the ocean undergoes a desalination phase, we can only wonder about the future ramifications for sharks and other marine life. At the same time, increased acidity kills coral reefs and reduces ocean productivity.
How Do Great White Sharks Protect Themselves?
Although killer whales and humans hunt great white sharks, they are not without some protection.
- White sharks are large, powerful fish armed with hundreds of sharp teeth, and they use those teeth to defend themselves.
- Their sheer size is also a defense. A 20-foot shark will be a greater challenge to catch and eat than a 3-foot shark.
- A shark’s physiology and behavioral response also act as a form of protection. Lateral lines alert sharks as to what is happening around them. These lines are extremely sensitive to vibrations, detecting the movement from up to 820 feet away.
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As the 2009 study showed, upon sensing killer whales in the area, great whites will depart (flee is probably more appropriate) and not return for months at a time, even if the area was a prime feeding spot.
- Great whites can disappear into their environment. Their coloration is a form of camouflage, largely used for hunting; however, it helps them hide from predators, especially when diving to great depths.
Their skin is also tough and abrasive, which deters some predators from taking a bite.
How Many Great Whites Are Left?
Although great white sharks are afforded protection in certain areas (South Africa, Australia, and California), they are still considered vulnerable by the IUCN since 1996.
Great white sharks are difficult to survey as they are migratory and spend much of their time in the deep ocean. However, scientists believe that great white populations have decreased by as much as 70% in certain areas.
As stated in a report in the Guardian, in 2010, only around 3 500 great whites were left. General estimates are between 3 000 and 5 000 sharks. Some scientists believe this to be overly optimistic, that there may only be 1 000 to 2 500 great whites left.
The shark monitoring programs are a good start, but we can’t say with certainty how many great whites are out there.
As food sources deplete, competition with humans, orcas, and other marine creatures increases, putting more pressure on great whites to survive.
How Does A Great White Shark Recover from Predation?
Whether a great white recovery from predation or not depends on how severe the wound is, when caught as a sport fish, great whites are generally released with minor injuries and some fatigue, which quickly heals and passes.
When caught in nets, sharks are likely to drown unless quickly removed. When struck by boat propellers, a great white could be badly injured. These injuries could prove fatal. But in other cases, they require time to heal.
If a killer whale attacks a white shark, its chances are rather slim.
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There are instances where a great white gets away with some bite marks and a puncture wound or two. If, however, the orcas removed the shark’s liver, the shark would die.
White sharks do, however, possess rapid healing. Researchers mapped out the great white shark genome in a study conducted in 2019.
This study discovered that sharks, particularly great whites, have genres that promote healing and wound repair on the molecular level.
This discovery means that great whites, if not fatally injured, could heal relatively quickly from most wounds (within weeks) with enhanced blood clotting and quicker tissue growth due to increased numbers of these specific genes.
Although great white sharks are considered the ocean’s apex predator, they are not without their predators.
Humans are their number one threat through fishing, pollution, and boats; however, killer whales are also known to kill white sharks, eating their livers and leaving the rest to rot.
Great whites often leave areas for up to a year when a killer whale arrives.
Due to these pressures, great whites are decreasing, and although it is difficult to count them accurately, there are probably around 2 000 to 3 000 remaining.
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.