The great white shark is often thought of as the ultimate ocean predator, a mindless, untouchable killing machine at the top of the food chain. Because of an incident that occurred just off San Francisco, we now know that it’s much more complicated than that. Great whites are in fact prey for a much larger and more formidable animal – the true super-predator of the oceans – the killer whale.
This film examines an extraordinary incident that occurred at the Farallon Islands, 27 miles off San Francisco, in October 1997. The Farallon Islands are famous as “the home of the great white”. For years, biologists have been studying the great white population there. Chief biologist on the islands, Peter Pyle, has helped garner a thorough understanding of this, the world’s largest predatory shark. But on the morning of October 4th 1997, his view of the shark was turned on its head.
At 11:00am that morning, two killer whales were sighted killing a sea-lion off Southeastern Farallon Island by Jay Yokomizo, a fishing boat skipper. Killer whales are very rarely seen at the islands, so Yokomizo radioed the skipper of the whale-watching boat, Superfish, Mick Menigoz, to alert him. At 11:20am, Mick brought the Superfish alongside the two killer whales, and the whale-watchers on board, including Oceanic Society biologist Mary Jane Schramm, enjoyed their company for 20 minutes, until something extraordinary happened.
Schramm noticed a great white shark moving close to the boat. It was probably attracted to the surface by the smell of the recently killed sea-lion. It started swimming away from the boat when one of the killer whales changed its behaviour and swam directly at the shark. The whale-watchers collectively held their breath as the two animals disappeared beneath the waves. Moments later, the killer whale came to the surface with the great white in its mouth. The shark was motionless and inverted. The killer whale held the shark in this way for 15 minutes before it began biting at the carcass and eating the liver.
Menigoz radioed Peter Pyle on the island. Pyle scrambled a small boat, and brought his polecam – an underwater camera. He managed to collect underwater footage of the two whales feeding on the shark. They ate the liver, and then departed the scene, leaving the rest to the birds.
The incident raised a host of questions. Where did the killer whales come from? Why, after just consuming a sea-lion, did one of them attack on a great white? How did the killer whale take the huge shark without a struggle? And a week later, Pyle had two more questions – the entire population of great whites at the Farallons had disappeared. What had triggered their evacuation, and where did they go? Find out tonight on The Whale That Ate Jaws at 10P et/pt. Eager? Here’s a sneak peak from tonight’s episode: