Drone pilot Slater Moore captured a rare sight on camera: two adult female killer whales and two calves tearing into a still-wriggling shark in California’s Monterey Bay. It’s rare to catch this particular type of killer whale, called the offshore killer whale, on camera — and it’s even rarer to catch one eating.
Moore was aboard the SeaWolfe II with the whale tour company Monterey Bay Whale Watch on Tuesday when the group spotted the whales. There were two females and two calves, and the crew could tell they were eating something. So Moore flew a drone over to see what was on the menu.
“And all of a sudden one of them brought it up, brought up the whole shark — and it was still alive, it was squirming around,” says Katlyn Taylor, a marine biologist with the company. A living shark is the most badass baby food on the planet.
The shark was probably a sevengill shark, Taylor says, local to the San Francisco and Monterey Bays. They can reach up to 10 feet long, although this was closer to five feet. And it was bigger than the calves were.
It’s hard to catch offshore killer whales eating because they primarily eat fish, sharks, and squid — so they usually hunt and feed underwater where they’re hard to spot. Scientists knew that offshore killer whales eat sharks. Frequently, when dead killer whales wash ashore, there are shark bits in their stomachs and the whales’ teeth are worn to nubs from chewing through the sandpapery shark skin.
The offshore killer whales only make an appearance in Monterey Bay every year or so. Where they spend their time in between is a mystery, but scientists know they’ve surfaced all the way from Southern California to Alaska.
The more commonly spotted killer whales for the Monterey Bay are called transient killer whales, which mainly eat other mammals. The two different types aren’t quite different species — yet. But they could eventually become so: they don’t eat the same things, they don’t speak the same language, and they don’t interbreed.
“They’re kinda tricky animals to study,” Taylor says. “They hold their breath a long time, they swim really fast, they travel way offshore. That’s part of the fun though, you never know what’s going to happen.” Like watching two baby whales, and, probably, their mothers, eat a shark alive.