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Drone footage captures orca whales chasing, stalking and eating great white sharks

Scientists believe they have captured the first direct evidence of orca whales hunting and killing white sharks, with new drone and aerial footage demonstrating what had previously only been formally described by just three studies.

Orcas have been observed preying on other shark species, but direct observation of predation on great white sharks locally has been lacking  until now.

A new study published in the journal of Ecology this week detailed killer orca attacks on white sharks off the coast of South Africa in May.

Scientists published video condensing an hour-long hunt by multiple orcas into a three-minute clip on YouTube.

"This behaviour has never been witnessed in detail before, and certainly never from the air," lead author Alison Towner, a senior shark scientist at Marine Dynamics Academy in Gansbaai, South Africa, said.

Only two killer whales in South Africa have been previously linked to hunting white sharks, but it has never actually seen "in action".

One of those animals was observed in the new footage, along with four other killer whales. The authors believe the involvement of these four new whales suggests the behaviour may be spreading.

The study also gives new insights into sharks' attempts to evade capture by orcas.

On two occasions, orcas approached sharks closely and slowly, while the shark, instead of fleeing, stayed close to the orca, keeping it in view — a common strategy that seals and turtles use to evade sharks.

But researchers believe the circling strategy is ineffective against orcas for white sharks.

"Killer whales are highly intelligent and social animals," study co-author Simon Elwen said.

"Their group hunting methods make them incredibly effective predators."

Killer whales live up to their name

While the drone footage marks what is believed to be the first video evidence of orcas consuming a great white shark, scientists have previously observed the half-eaten carcases of great whites that have been left by orcas.

Between February and June 2017, five white shark carcasses washed up on beaches in Gansbaai, Western Cape Province, four of which had their livers removed.

Shark livers are high in nutrient-rich lipids with researchers observing that selective feeding on energy-rich prey is a hunting strategy frequently used by killer whales.

However, sharks are not the only animals that orcas target.

They have been observed ganging up to hunt sea lions and seals, often slapping their prey metres into the air with their tails to incapacitate them.

Orcas have also been observed surging onto beaches to snag prey before wriggling back into the water with their catch.

Editor’s note (October 7, 2022): This story has been updated to remove references to the behaviour of orcas in captivity.

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