Researchers have theorized that the scavenging behavior, which is not often captured on camera, has significant ecological impacts.
Great white sharks are one of nature’s fiercest predators. They’re often seen in photos and videos breaching the water to grasp prey in their toothy jaws.
Some great whites, however, prefer when their prey comes to them.
In video taken off the coast of southern California, researchers observed a great white shark feeding off the carcass of a dead humpback whale.
Keith Poe, an independent researcher and conservationist, found the carcass after he was alerted by authorities patrolling the beach. The dead whale had originally surfaced closer to Newport Beach and was eventually dragged 14 miles out to sea to decompose.
Poe works with various research organizations to collect biological samples and to outfit sharks with tags that monitor their migration and population size. He and a team from California State University Long Beach were at the site to study the dead humpback when a shark that they believe to be a female approached to scavenge on the carcass.
“She ate so much she was swimming around upside-down aimlessly like she was intoxicated,” said Poe.
Sharks were long thought to primarily be aggressive predatory feeders until a study released in 2013 by the journal PLoS ONE reshaped the way scientists classify the feeding habits of these apex predators. Seals, sea lions, and small toothed whales are known to be some of great white sharks’ primary prey, but the study revealed scavenging may be a significant source of their diet.
Unlike terrestrial carnivores, little is known about shark scavenging habits.
Poe described the shark’s feeding as being relatively docile. From his account, the big fish seemed to circle the boat, mouth agape, leisurely feeding from the whale’s carcass.
Indeed the 2013 study supports this type of behavior, noting that, as opposed to their predatory hunting habits, great whites were significantly calmer while scavenging. The sharks were even observed sharing space with other scavenging great whites, a notable behavioral change for this typically solitary animal.
According to Poe, who observed the area for roughly three days, the shark fed on the whale carcass for nearly a day.
In documented instances of great white scavenging, sharks have been observed consuming whale carcasses methodically. They typically begin eating the whale’s fluke, or tail, before consuming the whale’s blubber. Occasionally, these sharks will regurgitate already eaten food to make room for more calorically rich meat.
The feeding scene was a gruesome end to a beloved-by-some whale known as Scarlet, who was given that name after getting tangled in a fishing net and infected with lice, a condition that turned part of its body red.
Scarlet had been tracked since 2000 when migrating as far north as Oregon. Many wildlife researchers tracked the whale over the years, and one enthusiast devoted a blog to its movements.
Because Scarlet was dragged out to sea, researchers will not be able to ascertain her cause of death by performing a necropsy, which can only be done with beached whales.