Mysterious Great White Shark Attacks on Sea Otters Surge


On Thanksgiving Day in 2008, biologist Tim Tinker rappelled down one of Big Sur’s steep cliffs and kicked a boogie board into the harrowing surf to try and unravel the mystery behind the newest threat to these marine mammals.

Tinker was there to retrieve the carcass of a dead otter, which he hauled up to the mainland in a dank backpack. An investigation would later reveal that the otter, like hundreds before and hundreds more since, had been the victim of a surprise predator—a young great white shark.

What stumped scientists then still does: Great whites don’t feed on the furry mammals.

“As far as we can tell, a white shark has never eaten a sea otter,” says Tinker, a wildlife ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center, with a joint appointment at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “We always get the whole animal back.”

Eight years later, scientists still can’t explain why so many otters are bitten and discarded by another protected marine species. But the number of such incidents has exploded. White sharks now kill so many otters that it threatens to hamper their recovery.

“Throughout the otter’s range, shark-bitten animals now account for more than half of the carcasses we find,” Tinker says. “It exceeds all other sources of death combined. And in the last few years, we’ve actually had declines in the northern and southern parts of the population.”

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article: Craig Welch
photo: Cesare Naldi, National Geographic Creative


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