Orcas And Sharks: Just Who Is Hunting Whom?

Thoughts of sharks looming silently from the dusky depths is the stuff of nightmares, and is enough to keep many otherwise stalwart humans from venturing into the ocean…but dolphins and whales don’t have the option to leave. Bite marks and scars on the bodies of cetaceans are testament to the frequency and relentlessness of shark attacks, and shark stomach contents can include bits of marine mammals of all types.

Orca and shark (Visser)

But who would have thought that sharks, in turn, are hunted by dolphins and whales?
Although some dolphins are limited to catching and eating small and young sharks, the orca (killer whale), takes on even the largest sharks using intelligent, cooperative hunting techniques. Even great white sharks are disabled and dispached with little risk because the orcas have learned that these predators are helpless when turned upside down (a hypnotized-like state called ‘tonic immobility’). Mako and other similar sized sharks are driven to the surface then smashed with the orca’s powerful tail.
This account by Jean-Michel Cousteau (http://independent.com/news/2010/feb/27/cousteau-seaworld-tragedy/) describes yet another method, where it almost seems like the orcas are trying to teach him something:

In October 1988, we were going to do a film in Papua New Guinea on blind fish that lived in a cave. In the entrance of the cave, before we started filming, we encountered a male and a female orca.
We spent 10 hours with them. Or, to be correct, they spent 10 hours with us because they could have left anytime they wanted. They did a show for us: They would go and catch a live shark, bring it to us, release the shark and catch it again in front of us. Eventually, they would take each end of the shark and destroy it. Then, very carefully, they’d take the liver, eat it, and abandoned the rest of the carcass. They would do it again and again and again. They were showing off and eating their choice food.
We eventually became so exhausted that we had to return to the ship. We started drinking champagne and celebrating because it was such an amazing experience.

Remarkably, scientists have now discovered that some types of orcas, called ‘offshore’ orcas, catch sharks to such an extent that their teeth are worn down from grasping the rough hide (shark skin is covered in tiny plates made out of the same material as the shark’s teeth). What seems odd about this is that the species of shark that the researchers documented having been attacked is the Pacific sleeper shark – a deep water, opportunistic scrounge with flesh that is inedible to most mammals.

Sleeper Shark (Creative Commons Photo)

The sleeper shark is a huge (up to 23 feet), slow growing fish that has been filmed thousands of feet under water, and mostly this shark eats what it can find on the bottom – flat fish and the carcasses of animals – but it also consumes quantities of octopus and squid. They may move up to the surface at night in pursuit of prey that hides in the depths during the day, and tagging studies show that these sharks move up and down the water column in some circumstances. Even though it’s languid habit of moving slowly and deliberately earned it the name of sleeper shark, it is capable of quick bursts to nab it’s prey. The orcas have to locate and kill the shark in the dark and/or at depth where light doesn’t penetrate (orcas generally dive to only about 300 feet, though they are capable of diving two or three times that depth).
Then there is the problem of the shark’s toxic flesh.
Like it’s cousin the Greenland shark, the Pacific sleeper shark’s muscle contains compounds that affect the nervous system of humans, dogs, and mice (tested in a laboratory), causing disorientation and even death. In order for it to be safe, the meat has to be treated by burying it and allowing it to go through several cycles of freezing and thawing, or by other similarly drastic methods. How the orcas would manage to eat this flesh unharmed is unknown at this time, and it is likely that they don’t eat the flesh at all.
The orcas may kill these sharks in order to eat the liver, but it is hard to imagine that the orcas can find enough of these sharks to sustain them as their major food source if they are just eating the liver. It is also unlikely that the orcas would have evolved the ability to eat the toxic flesh, yet would not have developed teeth that can withstand the abrasive shark skin.
But these sharks are also swimming sushi bars, adapted to store food in their stomachs in an environment where food is intermittent – one stomach of a smallish 12 foot sleeper shark contained 300 pounds of prey items such as octopus that could provide additional nourishment to the orcas.
But still, what about the orca’s worn out teeth? One possibility is that this feasting on Pacific sleeper sharks is a relatively new development, tied to shifting ocean conditions or shark abundance and there is some tentative indication that recently in parts of it’s range the population of these sharks did go through a temporary up-tick. (“On the eastern Bering Sea shelf, Pacific sleeper sharks were not well documented in survey catch until the mid-1990s. Biomass in 1999 was estimated at 2,079 mt and increased to 5,602 mt in 2002. However, biomass estimates have decreased since then and were down to 2,944 mt in 2006“) The more open ocean where these orcas live may leave them more vulnerable to sharks so they may kill sharks in defense of their young animals as well as for food; world wide, orcas are known to attack different types of sharks, including reef, basking, hammerhead, Galapagos, blue, whale shark, and carcharhinid (great whites are included here) sharks.
As researchers study these offshore orcas, we will no doubt continue to be amazed at what they discover, but no matter how it is that sharks fit into the orcas’ lifestyle this is another reminder that we need to protect the sharks from our thoughtless and fear-driven persecution, for we have yet to learn how important this ancient animal is to the mammals we seek to protect.

This is adapted from a more detailed post. Go here for more information, related videos and references.

Intern Opportunity at The Center for Whale Research, San Juan Island, Washington

The Center for Whale Research (CWR), a small, non-profit organization, is pleased to announce our internship program for 2011.

(Photo by Katie Jones)

Who We Are:
The mission of the Center for Whale Research is to develop, promote, and conduct benign studies of free-swimming Cetaceans (Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises) for the purpose of conserving their populations and informing governments and the public of their ecosystem needs. Our emphasis is on non-invasive research methodologies such as passive acoustic monitoring and photo-identification.

What We Do:

Graduate Student Emma Foster Video Recorded the Orcas as They Swam Past the Center for Whale Research

Although the Center for Whale Research is involved with various research projects, our central project is the Orca Survey, now in its 35th year. Orca Survey is a photo-identification study of the killer whales (Orcinus orca) that reside in the inland marine waters of Washington state and southern British Columbia. The focus of the project is a group known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Both the U.S. and Canada have now designated this population as endangered, and our primary objective is to determine population size and trends each year. However, our long-term studies have also provided the bulk of the natural history information on killer whales – including growth rates, social organization, spatial distribution, and prey preference. Orca Survey is a model study that illustrates the depth of information that can be learned through patient observation, and we hope that our work will continue for many more years to come.

Why Intern?
Our internship is a great way for interested students to discover what a life of marine mammal research is really about. This field is highly competitive and an experience like this is essential for future career opportunities. However, marine mammal work is not as glamorous as many believe it is. Candidates need to be realistic about ALL aspects of this field and be willing to work hard and live in a rustic, communal setting. An internship at CWR is a great way to gain needed experience, as well as to meet and network with people in this profession that come from a variety of backgrounds.

The Internship:
Interns will be expected to participate in all aspects of the Orca Survey project, as well as the day-to day operations of the Center. This includes, but is not limited to: data entry, fund-raising efforts, standing early morning watches, gardening, meal-preparation, basic housekeeping, and other office tasks. Also, a significant component of the internship will be to help create and implement community outreach and education projects. There will be opportunities to strengthen your skills in the areas of photography, photo-identification, and a variety of computer software applications, but these are just pieces of what we do at CWR.

Visiting Student Basil von Ah

The best part of this internship will, undoubtedly, be the opportunity to observe and experience wild killer whales. As an intern, you will occasionally be able to accompany our staff out on the water in order to conduct photographic surveys. During these encounters, you will be tasked with making behavioral observations and recording accurate field data. It will not be possible for interns to participate in every encounter due to vessel capacity restrictions, but given weather, and other restrictions, we will accommodate interns as best we can. We want to emphasize, however, that the majority of the work to be done will not directly involve killer whales. Applicants should see this internship as an opportunity to learn about what CWR does and gain experience in all aspects of both fieldwork and operating a non-profit. You will have some time off to recreate and enjoy the beautiful San Juan Islands but keep in mind that an internship with CWR is not intended to be a vacation.

Internship positions will be offered in monthly sessions from May-September 2011. The beginning and end dates for each session will tentatively coincide with the start and end of each month. There is availability for two interns each month and the fee for the program is $900/month. This includes accommodations and all meals, and contributes to the requisite staffing needs, utilities, fuel costs, and other incidentals involved with your stay. Applicants are welcome to apply for any month, or combination of months within the internship period, but may only be selected for a portion of their proposed stay. One month minimum is required.

The Center for Whale Research (Courtesy OrcaHome http://www.orcahome.de/images/img2007_6541.jpg)

As mentioned already, living at the Center means being willing to live in shared, rustic accommodations and participate in a communal environment. Amenities like toilets, shower, laundry, electricity, and kitchen facilities are available at the Center for everyone’s use, but interns may or may not have some or all of these conveniences where they sleep.

Applicants must be 18 years of age and have a strong desire to work with killer whales or other cetaceans. You must be physically fit (able to lift 50lbs), able to swim, and not easily susceptible to seasickness. Be prepared to spend time aboard a small (19-25ft.) vessel in unpredictable weather and sea conditions.

Preferred candidates will have earned an undergraduate degree in a relevant field of study, with greater preference being given to those students already involved in a graduate program. However, current undergraduates that show exceptional dedication to their studies will certainly be considered.

Daylight lasts quite long in the San Juan Islands during the summer months and, consequently, work can begin very early (05:00) and continue well into the evening (23:00). Interns must be willing to work hard, keep up their energy, and maintain a positive attitude throughout. Successful applicants will be able to tolerate a constantly changing schedule, as life at the Center revolves around the whales, and possess superior “people skills.” Interns will be required to engage the public and work well with the different ethnicities and personalities that the Center attracts. A sense of humor is mandatory.

The Center’s Location (Courtesy Orca Home http://www.orcahome.de/images)

International applicants are responsible for obtaining their own travel visas and all candidates must be willing to sign a waiver of liability and disclose pertinent medical histories.

How to Apply:
Please send cover letter, resume/CV, contact information for three references, and unofficial transcripts to info@whaleresearch.com. Your cover letter should explain both your interest in the program, and the qualities that set you apart from other candidates. Also be sure to include what month(s) you prefer, how long you can stay, and if there are alternate months you would consider. While not required, letter(s) of reference would be highly desirable. When emailing application materials, enter “2011 CWR Internship” as the subject heading. Applications without this subject heading may be lost or overlooked. We look forward to hearing from you.

Application Deadline: February 14, 2011 (we will aim to have decisions made by March 1, 2011)

Former Trainers Show How Captivity Kills Orcas

January 20, 2011

Orca Network: Howard Garrett or Susan Berta
360-678-3451, cell: 360-320-7176
< mailto:info@orcanetwork.org> info@orcanetwork.org

Former Trainers Show How Captivity Kills Orcas

“Lolita the Whale”, taken from the Southern Resident Killer Whale clan

A study titled “Keto & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity” was
released today after nearly a year in preparation showing how the conditions
of captivity significantly decrease lifespan for orcas, and how captivity
leads to aggression among captives and toward trainers. The paper was
written by Drs Jeff Ventre and John Jett, who worked as trainers at Sea
World of Florida for a combined total of 12 years with several orcas,
including Tilikum, and with trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was tragically
killed by Tilikum on Feb. 24, 2010.

This is a major breakthrough and a landmark achievement in the history of
orca captivity.

View the paper at:

In this paper you’ll see the precursors and symptoms of stresses in orcas in
captivity, illustrated with powerful photos. As former trainers at SeaWorld
Orlando, and now a medical doctor and biology professor respectively, they
have a perspective that has not been heard in the intensifying debate about
captivity for orcas. Having been deeply enmeshed in those arguments for over
15 years, we can attest that seldom, if ever, has anyone discussed many of
the topics covered here. Some of the major themes include shortened
longevity, breeding of young mothers, severe tooth damage found in many
captives and associated systemic illnesses, inbreeding, and the social
tensions that often erupt in hostile behavior or violence toward other
whales or trainers.

A Sad Life (Creative Commons Photo)

Ventre and Jett provide detailed observations and strong statistical
calculations that add up to an abundance of evidence that captivity kills
orcas, usually at a young age, and that stresses, social tensions and poor
health are chronic issues in marine park facilities. A new statistic is
compiled called “Mean Duration of Captivity” (MDC), drawn from diverse
credible sources, that allow overall comparisons with free-ranging orcas,
revealing shockingly low average longevity in captivity.

We often hear about how orcas suffer in captivity, but sometimes it’s hard
to understand what that means. In this article the reader can see the burnt
backs and eye cataracts from floating listlessly on the surface looking up
at trainers. With reference to what is known about the expansive travels,
family bonds and cultural lives of free-ranging orcas, we can empathize with
the traumas of capture, separation and shipment, the attempts to construct
ad hoc social relationships and hierarchies in contrived groupings that are
manipulated for management purposes. The dismal captive mortality rates
revealed here make sense when these stressors are understood.

Everyone will learn something from this paper.

This is a comprehensive treatment of orca captivity, starting from the
context of the conditions of captivity and how that relates to the two
trainer deaths in the past year, and arriving at suggested mitigations and
how to best phase out the practice. The point of view of the whales
themselves is a key element here that is seldom, if ever, seen in the
controversies over orca captivity. Ventre and Jett have kept their focus on
the evidence, on what’s happening to the orcas, how the conditions and
symptoms add up to express the stresses of captivity. When this study goes
out across the media I’m quite sure we will soon see a new public
conversation about the effects of captivity on the orcas themselves.

“Keto & Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity” is available for
public distribution at The Orca Project at:


Susan Berta
Orca Network

Orcas Are Back In The Seattle Area, Possibly L-pod 1/15/11

Orca Network reports that a small group of orcas were seen yesterday off Alki Point. Most likely these are members of L-pod and might even be the captive orca “Lolita’s” extended family, the L-12 matriline. Another possibility is that it is members from the L-32 group, Spirit and her two sons, Skana and Solstice.

“Lolitas” presumed family (members of the L-12 subpod and L-25 believed to be her mother) Previously photographed by Dave Ellifrit

Transient orcas (the type that eats marine mammals) have been seen in the area recently too, so we will need to wait to identify them for certain. But no matter which ones are there, it is a rare treat to see them, so keep an eye out if you are planning to be near the shore or on the ferries.

Way of Whales Workshop January 29th, 2011

CWR 2007 (photo by Dave Ellifrit)

Do you love whales?

Are you a naturalist, researcher, educator, or someone who thrills at seeing whales and wants to learn more about these amazing beings that live in the Salish Sea and beyond?

Then this workshop is for you!


Coupeville Middle School Performing Arts Center
501 So. Main St.
Coupeville, WA 98239

Driving Directions

Saturday January 29, 2011 from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM PST

Orca Network invites you to join us at our annual workshop
about the wonders of Pacific Northwest Whales and research being conducted to learn more about the whales in our region and protect them for future generations.

This year’s workshop includes presentations by:

~John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research – Blues, Grays, Humpbacks, and unusual species in Puget Sound

~Brad Hanson, NOAA Fisheries NWFSC – Satellite tagging of
orcas and other cetaceans to determine travels and habitats

~Monika Wieland, Photographer/Naturalist – Calls of the Southern Resident orcas – learn how to speak the local orca dialect!

~Suzanne Chisholm, Mountainside Films -Japan’s Taiji dolphin drive, and solitary orcas Luna & Morgan

~Carol Ray, former SeaWorld trainer – Tillikum, the orca at SeaWorld Orlando, and a behind-the-scene look at the marine park industry

Environmental education displays and materials will be available throughout the day as well.

Cost of the workshop is $25, with lunch available for purchase for an additional $10 (for those who pre-register by Jan. 25) .
See you there!

If you have questions about the event or registration process, or are interested in volunteering at the event, please contact Orca Network.


Susan Berta & Howard Garrett
Orca Network

Most Of K-pod, A Few J’s, And One L-pod Orca Were Back Yesterday (1/3/11)

The Center for Whale Research identified the following resident orcas yesterday, heading north along the west side of San Juan Island:

J14, J19, J30, J36, J37, J40, J41, J45.

K12, K13, K14, K16, K20, K21, K22, K25, K26, K27, K33, K34, K36, K37, K38, K40, K42, K43. Other than K35, they saw all the K’s.

Onyx (L-87) (Photo by Stephan Jacobs, CWR)

The lone L-pod member present was Onyx, a 19 year old male whose family is mostly deceased (although he may have an older surviving sister, 40 year old Spirit) and who often hangs out with K-pod.