'Shark vs Whale': Who do you think would win this fight between the ocean's greatest predators?

'Shark vs Whale': Who do you think would win this fight between the ocean's greatest predators?
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When it comes to ocean predators, both the shark and the whale are fearsome. But which one is to be feared more? National Geographic's latest offering as part of its Shakrfest lineup is 'Shark vs Whale', in which Ryan Johnson, a marine biologist based in South Africa, films a humpback whale being attacked and strategically drowned by a Great white shark. To make sense of this event, Ryan follows Humpback whales on their migration, mapping their weak spots. He also takes a new look at Great White sharks. The event featured in the special was reported on earlier this year and took place off the coast of South Africa.

Johnson will look at humpback whale migration patterns and at the points where great whites and whales cross paths. The attack took place at the end of summer when whales were making their way back to Antarctica after visiting the lower latitudes where they breed. The whale was young and had been left behind by the rest of the group, making it vulnerable. The great white shark that attacked the whale was a female that had been tagged by researchers and named Helen. An adult humpback whale could inflict a huge amount of damage on a great white by hitting it with its tail, making these sorts of attacks, generally highly unlikely. But this whale was so weakened that it gave the shark the upper hand and thus confidence to instigate the attack, according to Johnson.

In nature, it might be a little harder to pick who would emerge the clear winner in a fight between a shark and a whale. For one thing, while sharks are solitary creatures while whales go around in packs. Moreover, a killer whale can grow to weigh 8000 pounds, whereas the maximum weight for the biggest adult shark could be only half of that. 

In 2017, the carcasses of five great whites washed ashore on South Africa’s Western Cape province. Ranging in size from nine feet to 16 feet, the two females and three males all had one thing in common: holes puncturing the muscle wall between the pectoral fins and all their livers were missing. The common bite marks and local sightings point that the orcas were responsible for the attacks and subsequent deaths of the sharks. 

So why was the orca especially attracted to the shark's livers? The organs are large, typically accounting for five percent or more of a shark's body weight. The shark livers are oil-rich and the principal component squalene serves as an energy store and provides buoyancy in the absence of the swim-bladder found in teleosts. Additionally, the livers of great white sharks show extremely high total lipid content, dominated by more than 93 percent of triacylglycerols. This results in an energy density that is higher than whale blubber. As The Guardian said, for the orcas, "this is like eating a deep-fried Mars Bar".

It is also interesting to note that the whale has the second-highest brain mass. Not only are they the biggest hunters of the ocean, they are also very smart. During a 1997 encounter off the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, a group of whale watchers witnessed an orca ramming into the side of a great white shark, momentarily stunning it and allowing the orca to flip it over and holding it in place belly up for about 15 minutes, after which the orca began consuming its prey, much to the surprise of the whale watchers on board. A similar incident was captured on film off Costa Rica in 2014 – this time the orca’s prey was a tiger shark.

'Shark vs Whale' airs on National Geographic on July 28 at 10/9c. An encore presentation will air on Nat Geo WILD on August 11 at 10/9c.

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