Tiger Shark Feeding Frenzy – The Death of a Humpback Whale

Tiger Shark 2When an organism as large as a humpback whale dies in an ocean system, who cleans up that big rotting mess….Apex predators do, like the Tiger shark which is a renowned scavenger. This is a collection of footage and images, showing over a 3 day process, what happened to a young humpback whale when it died in Coral Bay, Western Australia and washed over the reef.

The humpback whale was first observed in distress on the outside of the reef, and was likely to of been a sub-adult and was around 5-7 meters long. Its belly was red and it was swamped but remora (sucker) fish. Tired and alone there was nothing to be done for the poor animal except let nature run its course. The age and size of the humpback whale would indicate it was maybe a year or two old suggesting it would of spent at least one summer feeing in the cold waters of Antarctica and fattening up for its migration north past Coral Bay, Western Australia, to the winter grounds.

DSC9095Feeding on krill and small fish, the humpback transports that nurturance, in the form of fatty tissue and muscle, northward. This is all part of a bigger picture of a huge food web that covers a huge area and supports a vast number of species along the way.

Once a humpback whale dies, a huge number of animals are responsible for the cleaning up, ranging from small birds that feed on the oils excreted by the rotting carcass and pieces of tissue that separate and float, to fish like the North West Snapper (spangled Emperors), Golden trevally and other meat eating fish species all the way up to big animals like the Tiger and Bull Sharks. Included in this feast are also less obvious animals such as sea stars and sea urchins as well as other bottom feeders, that can come in and break down small scraps and help digest other parts of the carcass that are not available to the larger animals.

DSC8978Through the humpback whales migration north, essentially the nutrients from the cold Antarctic waters are feeding the ecological diversity of the Ningaloo Reef and other habitats along the coast of WA.

Some of the tiger sharks that were observed feeding on this whale carcass were around 4-5 meters long. It was not a Frenzy, as such either.  It was more of an ordered feast. The sharks would come in 1, 2 or 3 at a time, find an area of exposed flesh where the skin was broken and slowly take a mouthful. There was some thrashing in the water, however this was more of a controlled movement to aid in removing each mouthful. There was no jostling between the animals and not sign of aggression. More polite then I had ever expected.

skeletonAfter 3 days on the reef, there was nothing much but bones remaining, and a pungent smell of dead whale in the air. The large predators had vanished apart from one or two late comers following the sent trail, and with only bones remaining there was nothing much left for them. I was astonished at the speed in which the whale carcass had been consumed, but also thankful that this protected eco system had done its job and cleaned up a huge mess that would of otherwise, sat and rotted on one of our beaches.

It was truly beautiful to see the calm procession of sharks that took their turns in feeding, their fat bellies grow in a feast rarely seen along the coast, with our happy and safe sharks of Coral Bay. Respect Existence or Expect Resistance!

Video footage shot using Nikon D800 with Atomos Ninja 2 and a combination of GoPro Black 3+ and other GoPro editions.