Orcas Can Eat Great White Sharks

“Orcas are usually nice and smart. Willy is smart and nasty.” —Free Willy (1993)

In A Nutshell

The great white shark is a terrifying predator, but it is not at the top of the food chain. The orca, or killer whale, has been observed attacking and eating the shark. In one highly publicized incident, a female orca was observed holding one of the sharks upside-down and causing it to suffocate.

The Whole Bushel

The great white shark is probably the closest earthly thing we have to an actual monster. The largest specimens can exceed 6 meters (20 ft) and weigh over 2,200 kilograms (5,000 lbs). While measuring the bite force of this beast is fraught with obvious difficulties, a 2008 computer model ascertained that a 6.4-meter (21 ft) shark could bite with a force approaching 4,000 lbs per square inch. Great whites are not nearly so dangerous to humans as the Jaws films might suggest, but they have attacked more people than any other species of shark. Their teeth cut through flesh like a hot knife through butter, and yet they are not the baddest creature in the ocean.

Normally, the only thing a great white shark has to worry about is a bigger great white. Very occasionally, however, they run across orcas (killer whales) and the results are disastrous for the shark. We see orcas through the Sea World lens of trained monkeys, but in the wild these animals are unstoppable apex predators, hunting in organized pods likened to wolfpacks. The largest male orca recorded was 9.8 meters (32 ft) long and weighed 10,000 kilograms (22,000 lbs). Different populations around the world have varied diets, with some groups eating fish, whales, or seals.

Certainly, the great white shark is not seen by orcas as a typical prey item; it is believed that in the rare instances the two come into contact, they are probably competing for the same resources. One incident occurred on October 4, 1997 off the coast of California. A female orca flipped a great white upside-down and held it in place, suffocating the shark. The orca then feasted on its liver. Following the attack, the scent of death in the water caused every great white shark in the area to flee.

Show Me The Proof

Great white shark versus orca
National Geographic: Great White Sharks
Sea World: Killer Whales

  • Ivan V.

    ”Following the attack, the scent of death in the water caused every great white shark in the area to flee.”

    • Passin’ Through

      I was curious about that too and did a little digging. It turns out sharks’ carcasses do release a chemical that warns other sharks to flee the area. I also thought it was weird the orca ate the shark’s liver. A delicacy? Or maybe it knew the liver would release that chemical to scare away other sharks.

      • Ivan V.

        Interesting find, I rushed a little although I’m still doubting that all sharks fled the area, reporters simply can’t know that, as well I doubt the orca knew anything about the liver, but still thanks for clearing the part about sharks scenting the chemical relased by carcasses

        • jamescox

          it wasn’t reporters. biologists were already in the area studying GWs and the rest of their season was ruin. The next day. GWs were gone, all 100+ of em. One was found in Hawaii – where they hardly never go, That’s how bad they get away from peril.

    • WhiteExodus

      “Following the attack, the scent of death in the water caused every great white shark in the area to flee.”
      I laughed. Hard.

      • Allycuk .

        Seemingly they attack the shark and put it into a state of tonic immobility and which then suffocates it to death.

        And if a shark has been killed,other sharks can pick up the smell which triggers them to flee the area.


  • Nomsheep

    I was always taught that death = more sharks not less.

  • chairde

    The liver is full of vitamins and proteins. Many predators first eat the liver. We should release all Orca in captivity.

  • Hillyard

    I imagine that a killer whale, can eat just about anything it wants to.

  • Hadeskabir

    They shouldn’t have freed Willy.

  • BK Jeong

    Considering this shark was a small one this incident cannot be used as evidence orcas prey on fully grown great white sharks.

    • GaigeMechromancer

      Oh yes it does. This is not an isolated incident:

      In Australia (2005):

      Even fully grown white sharks will stay the hell away from orcas. My aunt used to assist the researchers off the Farallones and she said all the great whites–including the huge 19-foot adult ones her team was observing–fled after the orca attack that summer. In South Africa and Australia they are testing shark repellents that include killer whale sounds and killer whale patterns.

      • BK Jeong

        That wasn’t a full grown shark either.

        Also, the sharks leave not because of orcas but because of dead sharks in the water. Human fishermen have the same impact on sharks. Therefore you cannot say they are particularly afraid of orcas.

        • GaigeMechromancer

          Great whites are not the apex predators we thought they were, my friend. Accept it.

          The summer that attack in the Farallones happened, my aunt and her team found that the great white shark population–100 or so sharks–disappeared for the entire summer. That area is frequented by fishing boats as well and this has never happened. Where did you get the idea that human fisherman have that same effect? Their presence actually attract whites who are after their catch, even if it’s another dead great white shark (see: shark cannibalism). It may be a scent that the dead shark emitted, but it was also the fact that it was mauled by an orca.

          • BK Jeong

            Those fishing boats are not there to kill sharks, so no dead sharks in the water to scare off living sharks. If one of them does kill a shark I guarantee this will happen. It has happened once, off Australia in 1995.

            Great whites were always thought to be inferior to orcas (though no living thing is better than anything else). It’s the orca that is overrated. Being big and smart does not help when your opponent is smart as well and can punch above its weight.

            As for shark cannibalism, in those cases the shark doing the eating is perfectly aware what killed the other shark (itself). As far as it knows it’s the predator. If, on the other hand, it detects a dead shark but not what killed it, it will err on the side of caution and leave.

            The carcass sank out of sight after the orca ate its liver; the other sharks had only the smell to go on.

            And the final clincher; In the incident described in this article, the shark moved first, AND TRIED TO STEAL A SEA LION FROM THE ORCA. The shark was not scared at all (though to be fair it was an inexperienced juvenile)

          • GaigeMechromancer

            A great white shark’s brain weighs 35 grams.

            An orca’s is 5000 grams.

            To be honest, I blanked out when you typed “nearly as smart as”.

            Some people want to believe the earth is flat, too, but I live near the Farallones and I believe my aunt, who actually studies the area for a living, when she says the great whites aren’t the apex predators we believed they were.

          • BK Jeong

            Brain size is irrelevant to intelligence. An orca’s brain is vastly larger, but a shark has a much greater density of neurons, and that’s a more important factor in intelligence that makes up for the smaller size of the brain.

            Your aunt may study the sharks, but she is just plain wrong to think great white sharks are not apex predators because of that one incident. Lion cubs are killed by other predators all the time, so by your logic lions must not be apex predators.

          • GaigeMechromancer

            Okay, buddy, the world is flat, too.

      • Steven Cox

        White Sharks are known to avoid areas where their own kind have been fished, hunted or killed! It’s more evidence of a sophisticated animal. Orcas are pack animals and as such Great whites, being lone hunters – would be smart in avoiding them. The facts are though that Orcas do NOT see Great Whites as a food source, certainly not full size ones. When they do attack Great Whites, the sharks in question are usually small and are seen as a threat to the Orcas young.. nothing more – nothing less. Tigers and Lions avoid Wild dogs – does that mean they can’t fight them off 1v1? Animals that hunt alone and don’t have the protection of the pack HAVE to be more careful and considered, surely ANYONE who knows ANYTHING about natural history would know this??

        • GaigeMechromancer

          It always amuses me how defensive people get about T-Rexes, Great Whites, and other so-called badass animals if there is the slightest intimation that they are not as badass as they think they should be. Great Whites are not pushovers, but they are not the top of the food chain either and some people should just accept facts. Also, I will believe my aunt, who actually does work in the field and does research in the Farallones, rather than some random internet person with an obsessive hard-on for Great Whites.

  • Brad Carter

    A 9 ft great white shark is hardly full grown. Massive 18-20 plus ft white sharks are top predators. The orca is a ferocious predator itself but it gains power hunting in multiple like wolves. We aren’t talking 7 vs 1 here. In that argument you could state a full grown wolf could eat a full grown lion or tiger. Bs.. I’m talking 1 on 1.. no Orca in the deep blue of any sea could take on and conquer a 20ft white shark by itself. But a white shark of that size could no doubt prey on a full size orca. A pod of orcas getting the better of a white shark? Sure.. but alone the white shark gets her belly full all day long