Great White Shark Filmed Drowning Whale in First Known Attack of Its Kind

A great white shark has been filmed drowning a humpback whale in the first known attack of its kind. The encounter took place off the coast of South Africa, with drone footage showing the shark biting the juvenile whale's tail, potentially to open a vein so it bleeds to death. It then puts weight on the whale's head to drag it underwater, eventually drowning it.

Ryan Johnson, the research coordinator for Blue Wilderness Research Unit, which conducts research on sharks, filmed the encounter by chance. He was contacted by the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute), which said a member of the public had notified them of a whale entangled in a net. Initially, he was told the whale was probably already dead, so he went to the site expecting to film a scavenging event. Soon after arriving, however, he realized it was still alive—albeit weakened.

"The idea that I was witnessing a live predation event slowly arrived when I started watching the shark trying to bite onto the whale's tail area," he told Newsweek in an email. "I honestly did not quite compute what a unique event it was until afterwards."

After going through the footage, he realized what he had filmed—the first ever documented evidence of a shark attacking and drowning event. "I had heard of Orca pods taking on large whales and calves, but honestly thought it was well out of the scope of great white sharks," he said.

He looked for other cases of sharks attacking whales. There was some evidence of a group of dusky sharks attacking a calf humpback whale, but it was not clear whether the whale died. "From everything I found, this was really the first verified report of a shark successfully killing a living whale," he said.

The footage of the attack has been released as part of a documentary about the event. Shark vs. Whale will premiere on National Geographic on Tuesday, July 28, as part of Nat Geo's Sharkfest. This is three weeks of programing on Nat Geo, and two weeks on Nat Geo Wild, dedicated to shark science.

In Shark vs. Whale, Johnson looks at the attack and whether this sort of event was unusual. The program looks 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 to 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," Johnson said.

shark vs whale
Ariel image of the shark attacking the young humpback whale. The shark bit the whale's tail before dragging its head underwater to drown it. National Geographic

Since filming the attack, the battery on the tracking device fitted to Helen has run out, so researchers are no longer able to track her movements. Johnson and colleagues are now trying to find out if the attack was a rare event, or if it is relatively common, just never before seen. They looked for bite scars on whales, evidence of great whites tracking whale migrations, as well as observing weakened whales that may be vulnerable to a similar attack.

"We found no evidence. I think...this behavior is very rare and requires a number of aspects to all come together to be possible. A weak whale passing through a great white hot spot, and then a large and confident great white encountering it."

Understanding great white shark feeding behaviours is important as they are apex predators and play a vital role in the local ecosystem. They are also particularly vulnerable to threats as they are long-lived creatures that produce few offspring over their lives. Finding out more about their prey can help conserve the species and maintain the food web.

"Great whites and other top predators function in keeping ecosystems in balance, mainly by removing weak or unhealthy prey from the ecosystem," Johnson said. "In this case, we are talking about one of the planet's largest predators attacking and killing one of the world's largest species. It is just fascinating that we live on a planet that can still surprise us with an encounter of this magnitude."

Shark vs. Whale will premiere on National Geographic on July 28.

Schedule for National Geographic's Sharkfest National Geographic