In the conversation of the ocean’s greatest predator, the debate usually comes down to orca vs. great white shark. Most people would likely say the giant, man-eating great white, and it’s easy to see why. For years, great white sharks slowly generated a reputation as the apex predators of the ocean. With rows upon rows of terrifying teeth and incredible instincts, they possess an array of tools that make them terrifying hunters. In addition, their reputation gained a boost from movies such as Jaws and Deep Blue Sea, which depict sharks as unstoppable forces of nature.
Meanwhile, the entertainment industry typically portrays orcas as cute creatures that like to perform adorable tricks. However, recent research threatens the great white’s claim as the top dog in the ocean. According to this research, the orca deserves the title of the ocean’s greatest predator. Now that the battle line has been drawn, it’s time to determine which of these two killing machines will reign supreme. We’ll examine seven critical attributes of orcas and great whites that make them excellent hunters to make our decision. Whichever species gains the advantage in the majority of categories will earn the title of the superior predator.
Comparing Orcas and Great White Sharks
|Orca||Great White Shark|
|Size||20 to 26 feet long|
8,000 to 12,000 pounds
Up to 32 feet long
Up to 22,000 pounds
|15 to 16 feet long|
1,500 to 2,450 pounds
Up to 20 feet long
Up to 5,000 pounds
|Speed||35 mph||25 mph|
|Bite Force||Up to 19,000 psi||Up to 4,000 psi|
|Teeth||40 to 56 teeth|
Up to 3 inches long
|43 to 54 teeth|
May have 300 teeth at a time
Up to 3 inches long
|Endurance||Up to 40 miles a day|
Top speeds only for short bursts
Dive up to 3,500 feet
|Up to 62 miles a day|
Top speed only for short bursts
Dive up to 3,900 feet
|Senses||Use echolocation to locate prey|
No sense of smell
Sense vibrations in the water
Can detect electrical fields
|Hunting Tactics||Hunt in groups||Hunt alone|
The 7 Key Factors to Determine the Superior Predator Between Orcas and Great White Sharks
Orca vs. Great White Shark: Size
Despite their moniker of “killer whale,” orcas are not whales. In fact, they belong to the dolphin family, and they easily rank as its largest member. Orcas vary in size depending on their ecosystem, and males typically grow larger than females. For example, male orcas from the North Atlantic typically measure between 19 to 22 feet long, while females measure between 16 to 19 feet long. Meanwhile, some Antarctic male orcs often reach lengths of 30 feet. While the average male orca generally measures between 20 to 26 feet long and weighs 8,000 to 12,000 pounds, they can reach up to 32 feet long and nearly 22,000 pounds. On the other hand, the great white shark is the largest extant macro predatory fish in the world. Unlike orcas, female great whites can grow larger than males of the same species. The average female great white measures 15 to 16 feet long and weighs around 1,500 to 2,450 pounds. However, they can easily grow up to 20 feet long and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Given that even small orcas measure as long and weigh significantly more than the largest great whites, the orca gains the predatory advantage in terms of size. Advantage: Orca
Orca vs. Great White Shark: Speed
Orcas rank among the fastest of all marine mammals. They can reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour at their fastest, which puts them just slightly behind their smaller cousin, the bottlenose dolphin. However, orcas can only maintain this top speed for a brief period. Although great whites don’t swim as fast as some other shark species, such as the superfast mako, they are no slouches when it comes to speed. In short spurts, great whites can reach top speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. Based upon these differences, orcas’ higher top speed gives them an advantage over great whites. Advantage: Orca
Orca vs. Great White Shark: Bite Force
We must start by stating that little accurate data exists that reliably measures the bite force of orcas and great whites. Generally speaking, neither orcas nor great whites ever bite down with their full force, and no accurate tests currently exist measuring the results of their bites. That said, scientists who study the anatomy of orcas and great whites present estimates of their possible bite forces. With the information currently available, scientists estimate that an orca’s bite force could reach up to 19,000 psi. If true, that would give it the strongest bite force of any extant animal species. Meanwhile, according to a study conducted in 2008 by scientists at the University of New South Wales, the bite force of a great white could reach up to 4,000 psi. The scientists came to this figure based on an analysis of the skulls of mature great whites and their bite potential. Considering these hypothetical figures, the orca possesses a clear advantage when it comes to bite force. Advantage: Orca
Orca vs. Great White Shark: Teeth
Both orcas and great whites possess wickedly sharp teeth designed for tearing apart prey. Arguably their greatest offensive weapons, their teeth each have unique properties that make them highly evolved predators in their own right. Orcas possess between 40 and 56 teeth, with each tooth measuring up to 3 inches long. Their teeth did not develop for chewing but rather to help orcas bite into and rip off pieces of their victim. Meanwhile, great white sharks have an equal number of “active” teeth as orcas, between 43 and 54 teeth. In addition, their teeth also measure around 3 inches long. However, unlike orcas, great whites grow new teeth over their lifetime and may possess as many as 300 teeth at any one time in different stages of growth. During its life, the average great white can grow as many as 20,000 teeth. Since great whites can grow new teeth and possess rows of teeth simultaneously, their teeth pose a more significant threat than an orca’s. Advantage: Great White Shark
Orca vs. Great White Shark: Endurance
According to available information, orcas possess high levels of stamina and endurance. Estimates suggest that they can swim up to 40 miles in a day and possibly more, although they can only maintain their maximum speed for short bursts. While orcas tend to spend most of their time 300 to 500 feet below the surface of the water, they can dive down up to 3,500 feet. In comparison, great white sharks exhibit even greater powers of endurance. They frequently swim 62 miles per day in search of food, although, like orcas, they can only swim at their top speed for short periods. They can also dive incredibly deep, reaching depths over 3,900 feet below the surface. While orcas certainly possess excellent endurance, the great white is in another class regarding stamina. Advantage: Great White Shark
Orca vs. Great White Shark: Senses
Orcas possess several keen senses that make them excellent predators. They can see well both in and out of the water, although they rely more on hearing than eyesight when hunting. This is especially true when they dive deep below the surface, where their vision is limited. In these situations, they use their incredible sense of hearing to locate prey. Orcas use high-frequency sound waves, or echolocation, to detect objects around them. However, despite these advantages, orcas lack a sense of smell, which also happens to be one of the great white’s keenest senses. They can detect blood in 1 part per 10 billion parts of water and often use their excellent noses to track prey. They also possess extraordinary hearing and use their “ear stone” to respond to the effects of gravity, so they always know their orientation in the water. In addition, great whites can detect electrical fields, which allows them to navigate in the open ocean. With its advanced tracking and navigational skills, the great white’s senses give it an advantage over the orca. Advantage: Great White Shark
Orca vs. Great White Shark: Hunting Tactics
Orcas are some of the most sophisticated pack hunters in the world. With their advanced communicative abilities, orcas put other well-known predators that hunt in groups to shame. A pod of orcas can coordinate complicated strategies to isolate, ambush, and disorient prey to ensure an easy kill. On the other hand, great white sharks are solitary hunters. While they will cooperate with other sharks to secure a kill, they do not exhibit the same level of coordination and planning as orcas. With this in mind, orcas maintain a distinct advantage over great whites in regard to hunting tactics. Advantage: Orca
Final Tally: Orca (4), Great White Shark (3)
Who is the Superior Predator Between an Orca and a Great White Shark?
Even small, female orcas measure favorably against large, female great whites in size, speed, bite force, and hunting tactics. While great whites possess advantages in their teeth, endurance, and senses, orcas win the title of the superior predator. This claim is also backed up by evidence from studies conducted in the wild. According to a 2019 report, orcas that relocate to an area to hunt seals will drive away any great white sharks that previously resided in the area. In addition, these sharks tend to keep clear of the area for at least an entire season. This reluctance to return indicates that the sharks possess some level of fear of the orcas and do not wish to chance an encounter by returning too soon. Furthermore, evidence from several great white carcasses recovered in different locations showed evidence of bite marks from orcas. The shark carcasses each contained no liver, suggesting that orcas will attack and kill sharks to feast on their calorie-rich livers.
Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Orcas and Great White Sharks
How long can orcas and great whites live?
Orcas generally live 50 years in the wild but can live to 80 or 90 in some circumstances. Meanwhile, great white sharks can live to the age of 70.
What do orcas and great whites eat?
As apex predators, orcas will eat just about anything they can catch. Their diet includes fish and squid and sea mammals such as seals, sea birds, other whales, and sharks. Before they mature, great whites mainly subsist on other fish, including smaller species of shark. At maturity, their diet shifts to include sea mammals such as seals and sea lions.
Do Orcas Feed On Great Whites?
Orcas have demonstrated that they hunt great white sharks in order to kill them to consume their highly prized fatty-rich livers. There are numerous accounts in South Africa of killer whales working together to round up great whites and these sharks are actually afraid of this apex mammal. Carcasses of great white sharks, on the Western Cape of South Africa, have been found with their livers missing. There is even video footage of a great white trying to evade a group of orcas.
An infamous duo of orcas, known as Port and Starboard, have been preying on white sharks for quite some time and they are actually not the first ones to do so. There are accounts of two orcas, dating back to 1997, who were eating the fatty-rich liver of a great white. This event was witnessed by tourists who were whale watching around the Farallon Islands, located off the coast of San Fransisco.
The photo featured at the top of this post is ©
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Where have killer whales and great whites faced off?
Some notable great white and killer whale battles took place in:
- San Francisco: The first recorded incident of killer whales hunting great white sharks took place off San Francisco in 1997
- Australia: Killer whales have been spotted hunting great whites in South Australia.
- South Africa: After killer whales entered the area several great whites were found washed up on the beach and missing their livers.
After all incidents, great whites vacated the areas for an extended period.
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