Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’
You sigh as Uncle Quint tells the story again, your eyes rolling back to reveal their whites, just as you know his conjured up shark’s soon will. As always he’s sitting too close. The stench of booze coming from his mouth seems to physically shrink the entire room.
You want to interject. To finally put a stop to the madness and miasma. No one else in the room seems willing to. ‘Sure, Uncle Quint. Black eyes. Lifeless eyes. We’ve heard it a billion times. How black and lifeless can they bloody be?! But just as you’re about to speak he fixes you with a stare as if he knows exactly what you’re about to say and he stops, mid-rant, and redirects:
‘You wanna know just how black?!’
And he pulls out his smartphone and, a few clicks and scrolls later, shoves it in your face:
Sharks are our friends!
Don’t hug ‘em or whatever—in fact in general the rule when underwater or anywhere wild is don’t touch or disturb the wildlife but I assume the situation above is one of those allowed for exceptions—but sharks are cool and chill and we should love them like all animals (except the wasp. And the mosquito. And the Tory).
Here are a few cool facts about Great White Sharks:
Fossil records indicate that Great Whites are about 16 million years old, though the there is some evidence for them being around for much longer than even that.
Though they live and hunt on the coast of every continent except Antarctica, most of the world’s population of Great White Sharks live off the coast of Dyer Island, in South Africa, in an area called ‘Shark Alley.’
Great Whites usually stick to shallower waters, but they have been seen in open waters and up to depths of 3,900 feet.
Once upon a time we thought Great Whites lived to an average of about 25. Turns out it’s probably closer to 70.
Though most Great Whites tend to peak at around one ton in weight, the heaviest specimen ever recorded in the wild was estimated to be just over 3 tons. Females tend to be larger (averaging 15-16 feet in length) than the males (11-13 feet). The largest Great White ever recorded was estimated to be 26 feet in length.
Once a Great White gets a full belly it can coast about for 3 months or so before it needs to chow down again. Oh and I say coast, but they can clock up to 35mph, which makes them one of the fastest ocean dwelling predators.
At 4,000 psi, a Great White’s bite force is 10 times stronger than that of a lion.
Great Whites have 5 rows of teeth, with 46 teeth in each row.
Usually, when killing prey, Great Whites will go in for a few disabling bites—famously rolling those black eyes back for protection—before coming back to finish off the job and eat after the victim is weakened. The great rule of nature: use only as much energy as needed.
Great Whites, like other sharks, succumb to a biological phenomenon called ‘tonic immobility’—i.e. they become paralysed when flipped onto their backs. The intended function of tonic immobility is not certain, though famously killer whales have been known to flip sharks (including Great Whites) onto their backs to paralyse them before eating them.
Or sometimes just their livers.
Because yeah, segue: Orcas. Huge, deadly, and incredibly smart and working in sophisticated packs often with distinct cultures, they’re true apex predators of the ocean.
The diet of orcas is often geographic or population specific. Those populations predating in South African waters have been documented targeting smaller shark species for their livers. Cow sharks, blues and makos caught on longlines have had their livers removed by orcas, alongside the brains of the billfish also caught. Cow shark carcasses without livers have also washed ashore near Cape Town, and again, this followed nearby orca sightings.
With no doubt that orcas are using highly specialised hunting strategies to target the liver; the real question is: why?
Shark livers are large, typically accounting for 5% or more of a shark’s total body weight. They are oil rich, with a principal component, squalene, serving as an energy store and providing buoyancy in the absence of the swim-bladder found in teleosts (bony fish).
Analysis of white shark livers in particular shows an extremely high total lipid content, dominated by triacylglycerols (>93%). This results in an energy density that is higher than whale blubber. For the sharks this serves as an energy storage unit to fuel migrations, growth and reproduction (Pethybridge et al 2014). For the orcas this is like eating a deep fried Mars Bar with added vitamins. Generally speaking, livers contain vitamin C, vitamin B12, folate, vitamin B6, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin A, iron, sodium and of course fat, carbohydrate and protein energy sources.
Since the attraction of this delicacy to the orca is clear, how exactly does an orca go about removing a great white shark’s liver? The evidence we have shows that it is done with some precision - the shark carcasses were not obliterated.
During a 1997 encounter off the Farrallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, a group of whale watchers witnessed an orca ramming into the side of a great white shark, momentarily stunning it and allowing the orca to flip it over and holding it in place (ventral/belly up) for around 15 minutes, after which the orca began consuming its prey, much to the surprise of the whale watchers on board.
Orca will hunt nearly anything, often separating baby humpback whales from their mothers when the opportunity arises.
But don’t worry, to date there has been no recorded incident of an orca ever attacking a human in the wild. Probably because they’ve hidden the evidence so well.
Anyway here’s Deep Blue:
Image sources (in order of posting): Skyler Thomas, Barcroft Images, Getty Images