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January 1998 Vol. 24, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Battle of the Titans

Who’s the king of the food chain?

from the January, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Who might win in a fight between an orca and a great white shark? No one knew, because marine biologists simply assumed the two giants at the top of the food chain avoided each other.

But then, wildlife watchers on an October Oceanic Society cruise near San Francisco caught a matchup on video. What a surprise!

Mary Jane Schramm told the San Francisco Chronicle that “We were on our way to the Farallones when a fishermen called and told us he saw two orcas kill a sea lion. By the time we got there, the sea lion was gone.” But the orcas — a 20-foot female and a 10-foot youngster — were still there.

“Then we noticed this dark shape moving in the water, giving the orcas a wide berth,” Schramm said. “The female orca suddenly veered off, on an intercept path.” She surged to the surface with a 10- foot great white in her jaws. “We were stunned,” Schramm said.

The whale swam away from the boat and thrashed the shark on the surface of the water, a practice orcas typically employ with their prey.

Peter Pyle, a great white shark expert stationed on Farallon Island, raced to the scene in a Boston whaler. He got within five feet of the orcas and began shooting underwater video. Schramm said “The female apparently killed the shark, but she didn’t eat it — she was encouraging the calf to feed. [The calf] especially liked the liver.”

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