A shark is filmed hunting a whale – what happens next has never been seen and has stunned experts

Marine biologist Ryan Johnson. (Photo: National Geographic/Earth Touch)
Marine biologist Ryan Johnson. (Photo: National Geographic/Earth Touch)
  • Marine biologist Ryan Johnson captures rare drone footage of a shark drowning a whale.
  • The shark's attack is strategic, meticulous and ultimately, deadly. Was this an anomaly or just something that hasn't been caught on camera before?
  • In Shark vs Whale, Ryan delves deeper into what he stumbled across.


Helen is a great white shark that marine biologist Ryan Johnson tracked along the coast of South Africa as part of a previous study of 50 sharks.

The study that traced the migration patterns of the species had concluded, but soon Helen and Ryan would meet again. Only, this time it would be in the most unexpected way and would go down in history.

Ryan, a New Zealander who has spent the last 15 years in South Africa conducting research on great white sharks and other marine predators, was doing a routine drone survey when he unexpectedly captured something on film that nobody in the world had ever seen before – a great white shark drowning a humpback whale.

Using his drone, which needed six battery changes during filming, Ryan captured aerial footage of the shark hunting the whale.

The shark expert immediately knew he was onto something unique and made sure to film every moment of the hunt which showed precision, patience and skill.

While filming, Ryan spotted the unique dorsal fin of the shark and knew it looked familiar. It was Helen – the shark he had tagged and tracked before.

The young humpback whale was entangled in fishing rope in early February – months after the spring migration of the whales from the warm Indian Ocean coastline of Mozambique back to the Arctic. Having not eaten for months during its migration, the whale was weak and separated from its pod when Helen found it off the coast of Port Elizabeth.

According to Ryan, humpback whales annually migrate from their feeding grounds in Antarctic waters to breeding areas near Mozambique. He adds that research shows that as many as 60 to 70% of whales either become entangled in nets and ropes or get hit by ships on the busy coastline during their annual trek.

The story of Helen and the whale is unique in that no one has ever captured footage of or seen a shark hunting and drowning a whale. Previous studies have shown that orcas sometimes pray on great whites - or even humpback whales – but never the other way around.

Ryan's footage showed Helen strategically planning her attack on the whale. The shark assessed the risk and knew it could dominate the whale that was getting weaker by the day.

The first strike was at the whale's tail - a strategic move. Whales often use their large tail fins, also known as flukes, to fend off predators and to propel them out of the water during their majestic aerial performances. But, the fluke also consists of fibrous connective tissue surrounded by a network of arteries and veins.

Helen's meticulous and repeated strikes at the tale led to a puncture, causing the whale to lose litres of blood. The great white shark patiently waited for its prey to get even weaker before it went for its head, pushing it under the water and ultimately, drowning it.

Whale blubber is nutritious and provides sharks with more energy than they would ever get from eating a seal.

Was Helen's hunt an anomaly or is it part of natural great white behaviour that we've just not seen before? That's what Ryan explores in the documentary Shark Vs Whale which airs on Friday, 17 July at 18:00 on National Geographic Wild (DStv 182) as part of the annual SharkFest.

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