Orcas (Orcinus orca) are known as “killer whales” for a reason. The largest of the dolphins and one of the world’s most powerful predators, this toothed whale is a highly intelligent, social species that lives in pods and can cooperatively hunt for prey. Made famous by the ‘Free Willy!’ movie and ‘Blackfish’ documentary, they’ve made headlines recently for dethroning great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in South Africa.
And this time it seems they have set their sights on whale sharks (Rhincodon typus)! This slow-moving, filter-feeding shark is the largest known extant fish species and are found throughout the world’s tropical and warm, temperate seas. A highly migratory species, whale sharks have been seen in Pacific Panama, particularly along the coasts of the northern islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí where their genetics shows similarities to populations of whale sharks found in the Arabian Gulf, Western Indian Ocean, Mexico, and the Gulf of California.
Located in the Gulf of Chiriquí, Coiba National Park is a marine reserve off Panama’s Pacific coast. And it was near here where the latest showdown between orca and shark went down, as posted by the non-profit organization MarAlliance on their Instagram. The video (which can be seen here), taken by Luis Terrero of Expedicion Coiba, shows the orcas pushing and herding the juvenile whale shark away from their expedition dive boats, where it appeared to be seeking refuge. Although not filmed, the guides indicated the killer whales attacked the juvenile whale shark after.
“Orcas just started showing up last November in this area for the first time our community colleagues had noted. First time in their lives they had seen them,” explained MarAlliance on their instagram, indicating this was not a common sight. “In our quarter of a century working with whale sharks, we have NEVER seen this. Thank you Luis and Expedicion Coiba for sharing this with us.”
However, the organization does note that orcas were documented hunting and partially eating a whale shark in Baja California about twenty-two years ago, although that video was shot above water by a John O. The recent interaction has sparked conversations worldwide, with marine scientist Dr. Bec Wellard remembering an interaction between orcas and whale sharks in Australia! “In all the years we’ve been working with the killer whales on the Ningaloo, we’ve never seen a predation on the whale sharks. Although in saying that, there are surplus humpback calves for the orca to prey upon, which might be a juicier option. There has only ever been one anecdotal report of an interaction, where the killer whale came from below and pushed the whale shark up – essentially trying to flip it,” she commented. “No bites – just an interaction. Up on the Ningaloo, there are many opportunities for the orca to predate upon whale sharks- and yet none have been observed doing so. This doesn’t mean they don’t prey upon them, but with the amount of boat activity and people on the water, there is a strong likelihood it would have been documented by now.”
“We’re a little worried that [the orcas] will take up residence there and go after the sharks and mantas [here],” said MarAlliance. However, only time will tell what the future holds for orcas, sharks, and other animals here now that a new predator seems to have entered the scene.