What Eats Orcas?

What Eats Orcas? What Does An Orca Eat?

Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, sit firmly atop most marine food chains thanks to their power and collective hunting capacities. However, several rare circumstances can still turn these dominant apex predators into prey themselves. 

In this article, we dive deep into 5 known killers of orcas under special situations, exploring why each poses an opportunistic threat.

Great White Sharks

Close-up of Great White Sharks
Close-up of Great White Sharks

The great white shark is likely the most feared predator of orcas across oceans worldwide. Growing over 20 feet long and weighing up to 7,000 pounds, these sharks compete directly with orcas for food sources like seals, sea lions and large fish. 

Their lineages have surely crossed for thousands of years, likely leading to conflicts. While no match for an entire pod of orcas, great whites can still take down young orcas through sheer size and ferocity. 

Documented great white shark attacks have targeted orca calves separated from mothers and pod members that offer protection through coordinated retaliation. Their razor-sharp teeth and extreme thrashing easily overwhelm younger orcas.

Additionally, great whites seem to attack adult orcas opportunistically during feeding frenzies when the orcas are distracted. 

For example, near the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, great whites have ambushed orcas from beneath while the orcas pursue seals or sea lions nearshore. They have emerged to inflict damage and grab the body parts of orcas before quickly retreating.

Marine biologists believe the great white’s capacity as an apex open ocean stalker allows it to surprise orcas focused on other prey. 

Their 5,000-pound bulk concentration and enormous jaw strength, coupled with surprise, give them a fighting chance to injure mature orcas as well before escaping.

Ultimately, healthy adult orcas stand little chance of being killed outright by even the largest great white once they gather to defend themselves. 

But the fact that great whites continue attempting attacks reveals the boldness of these sharks as opportunistic hunters. Though rare, they remain the most credible threat to orca dominance in coastal marine habitats across the globe.

Transient Orcas in the Ocean
Transient Orcas in the Ocean

As shocking as it may sound, orcas have been confirmed on rare occasions feeding on their own species. 

This phenomenon occurs most often among smaller related groups dubbed transient orcas. Transients travel in loose pods of 5-10 rather than the rigid long-term family pods of 30-50 orcas comprising most populations.

Lacking established familial bonds and communal hunting practices, transients often struggle to feed themselves adequately across seasons and locations. 

As desperation mounts in hunting for typical prey sources like seals or large fish, some transient groups resort to attacking weaker members within their own pods. Usually, younger orcas become targeted as victims, though mothers will often refuse to separate from their calves.

Marine conservationists fear climate change, dwindling food stocks and contamination could exacerbate starvation cycles for transients. 

If so, their abnormal cannibalistic habits might expand from random necessity to systematic pod purges. The behavior could spread between transient pods over generations as well in that scenario.

While clearly an outlier currently, transient orca cannibalism shows that extreme scarcity can turn even tightly-knit orca lineages against themselves. It serves as an alarming case study of how external habitat factors influence social structures.

Keeping robust salmon reserves and restraining ocean pollution may prevent such radical orca behavioral shifts from surfacing frequently. For now, transient orca cannibalism remains a rare but known killer within orca society.

Polar Bears

Polar Bears on a Sunny Day
Polar Bears on a Sunny Day

As the world’s largest land-based carnivore, the polar bear unsurprisingly poses lethal risks to orcas invading its Arctic domain. 

Famous for stalking ringed seals across frozen seascape terrain, polar bears expend lots of energy on each hunting attempt thanks to their 800-1500 pound frames. As a result, they constantly scout any foreign food source that enters their coastal habitats.

Orcas migrating near polar bear feeding grounds will often send lone members to probe ice holes or shorelines ahead of the pod. 

These younger exploratory orcas make easy initial targets for polar bears seeking to avoid expending unnecessary energy chasing seals. Bears have been documented ambushing orcas, then dragging them onto ice floes or shore to safely dismember them.

Such attacks again prey on separation from pod protection rather than challenging entire groups of orcas outright. But video evidence has also shown polar bears countering attempts by multiple orcas to grab seals from small fragmented ice clusters. 

The bears’ willingness to swim, grapple and even bombard orcas with jagged chunks of ice shows their determination. They teach orcas to carefully respect the bounds of polar bear feeding territory.

Additionally, polar bears will readily scavenge any deceased orcas they find, exhibiting opportunistic tendencies similar to great white sharks. 

Overall, polar bears integrate both active predation and cold weather durability to remind orcas that the Arctic seascape offers unique dangers worth treading lightly around.

Whale Falls

Not all predators of deceased orcas directly attack them beforehand. An odd deep sea phenomenon called whale falls shows how orca carcasses feed entirely different marine ecosystems once they sink after dying. 

The key here is recognizing how the gradual descent and decomposition of giant orca bodies gives access to organisms rarely seen at surface levels.

When an orca corpse reaches the ocean floor after dying, the first scavengers to arrive are small shrimp and crab-like crustaceans. 

These early visitors have a limited impact on the flesh itself initially. They instead rely on giant sulfur-loving bacteria blooming inside the corpse to break down blubber and create free-flowing oxygen through putrefaction processes.

As the bacteria multiply exponentially, more active scavengers like slimy hagfish arrive, burrowing their way inside the carcass to consume tissue and organs in quantity. 

These early attendants trigger rapid flesh decomposition, opening space for later-stage predators like sleepers and rat-tail fish to use skeleton structures as reservoirs. They colonize the leftover whale bones for decades essentially.

Remarkably, after 5 years often only an orca skeleton surrounded by enriching nutrients remains to support deep sea tubeworms, mussels and other organisms unrelated to scavenging. They form lasting ecosystems benefitting food chains far below where any orca normally hunts. 

In essence, the body of a single deceased orca nourishes deep sea life for up to a century after initial death.

This fascinating web of organisms collectively converting orcas into biomass energy represents an entirely different model of predation. 

It expands the scope of what “eats orcas” to more systemic mortality processes relating to migration, reproduction and the recycling of nutrients across oceans. 

Though not overt hunters, this menagerie of creatures feasting on sunken orcas consumes as much tissue as any other renowned ocean predator over longer periods.


Examining some of the rare predators of orcas helps illustrate that even the ocean’s apex hunter has vulnerabilities. While orcas confidently dominate marine food chains when traveling in pods, young, old and isolated orcas face higher risks of attacks. 

Great white sharks and polar bears especially reveal how size and opportunity can momentarily triumph over even orca intelligence and group coordination.

The whale fall scenario exposes an entirely different dimension regarding the impermanence of life. No animal fully escapes death’s embrace forever. 

Deceased orcas redistributing their nutrients across oceans highlight how, beyond predators, the specter of mortality shadows all creatures, great and small. 

This limited perspective should encourage stewarding the marine habitats supporting healthy orca populations almost anywhere. 


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