Sociable Killers

New studies of the white shark (aka great white) show that its social life and hunting strategies are complex

The location and timing of predatory attacks are also far from indiscriminate. At high tide on the Farallon Islands, for instance, there is heavy competition for space where northern elephant seals can haul themselves onto the rocks, and the competition forces many low-ranking juve-nile seals into the water. Klimley—along with Peter Pyle and Scot D. Anderson, both wildlife biologists then at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California—has shown that at the Farallons, most white-shark attacks take place during high tide, near where the mammals enter and exit the water.

Similarly, at Seal Island, Cape fur seals leave for their foraging expeditions from a small rocky outcrop nicknamed the Launch Pad. Coordinated groups of between five and fifteen seals usually leave together, but they scatter while at sea and return alone or in small groups of two or three. White sharks attack almost any seal at Seal Island—juvenile or adult, male or female—but they particularly target lone, incoming, young-of-the-year seals close to the Launch Pad. The incoming seal pups have fewer compatriots with which to share predator-spotting duties than they do in the larger outgoing groups. Furthermore, they’re full and tired from foraging at sea, making them less likely to detect a stalking white shark.

The white shark relies on stealth and ambush when hunting seals. It stalks its prey from the obscurity of the depths, then attacks in a rush from below. Most attacks at Seal Island take place within two hours of sunrise, when the light is low. Then, the silhouette of a seal against the water’s surface is much easier to see from below than is the dark back of the shark against the watery gloom from above. The shark thus maximizes its visual advantage over its prey. The numbers confirm it: at dawn, white sharks at Seal Island enjoy a 55 percent predatory success rate. As the sun rises higher in the sky, light penetrates farther down into the water, and by late morning their success rate falls to about 40 percent. After that the sharks cease hunting actively, though some of them return to the hunt near sunset.

But Cape fur seals are hardly helpless victims. They are big, powerful predators in their own right, and take defensive advantage of their large canine teeth and strong claws. They also exhibit a remarkable range of antipredator tactics. Swimming quickly in small groups to or from the Launch Pad minimizes their time in that high-risk zone, and they remain in the relative safety of the open sea for extended periods. When they detect a white shark, seals often do a headstand, vigilantly scanning underwater with their rear flippers in the air. They also watch one another closely for signs of alarm. Alone, in pairs, or in threes, Cape fur seals occasionally even follow a white shark, swirling around it as if to let the would-be predator know its cover has been blown.

To avoid a shark attack, seals may leap in a zigzag pattern or even ride the pressure wave along a shark’s flank, safely away from its lethal jaws. If an attacking shark does not kill or incapacitate a seal in the initial strike, superior agility now favors the seal. The longer an attack continues, the less likely it will end in the shark’s favor. Cape fur seals never give up without a fight. Even when grasped between a white shark’s teeth, a Cape fur seal bites and claws its attacker. One has to admire their pluck against such a formidable predator.

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