Scientists with the Shark Survey at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimate the mature male great white shark was between 12 and 13 feet long. Here it tries to nip a 4-foot blacktip shark also caught on the VIMS longline survey approximately 3.5 miles off the coast of Sandbridge, VA.
Photo: K. O’Brien/VIMS.

Remember Bruce, the friendly vegetarian great white from Finding Nemo who lives by the “Fish are friends, not food” motto? The great white shark you see pictured above is pretty much the antithesis of him.

Last Friday, a cadre of scientists with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science caught a four-foot blacktip shark off the Virginian coast as part of an annual shark survey. As they were reeling it toward the vessel, they realized the longline had become tangled. “Keith [marine engineer Keith Mayer] yelled ‘Something big down there’s messing it up,’” Kailyn O’Brien, a graduate student at VIMS, said in a press release.

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That something, it turns out, was a great white shark, over three times the blacktip’s size and chowing down on the smaller predator. According to The Virginia Pilot, the 13 foot beast held fast to the defenseless 4 foot shark while researchers hurried to save the other sharks previously caught.

“We were all kind of in shock—it was once in a lifetime,” O’Brien continued.

The shark survey intends to collect data on shark populations that frequent the Virginia coastline and the Chesapeake Bay. Typically, the sharks are caught, measured, tagged, and then released back into the wild. That’s if they’re not eaten for lunch while science is happening.

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Satisfied by the meal, the great white swam away before it could be brought on board, according to a VIMS Facebook post.

It’s not particularly unusual for a great white to gnaw on its fellow shark brethren. These sharp-toothed creatures primarily have an appetite for seals and other marine mammals, but they have but they have diverse diets. And the blacktip shark’s vulnerable state might have been too much for the apex predator to resist. “Few animals would turn down an easy meal like a restrained-by-fishing-gear smaller shark,” David Shiffman, a shark conservationist not involved in the survey, told Earther via email.

Shiffman also points out that this shark-eat-shark episode isn’t cannibalism (as some media outlets have reported) since great whites and blacktip sharks are different species, in the same way that it wouldn’t be cannibalism “for a human to eat a cow, a fellow mammal of a different species.”

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Despite the incident, researchers were able to catch and record 41 sharks on their 100-hook fishing line—higher than the 10-15 sharks typically recorded. They attribute this uptick—and the unusual spotting of two great whites, the hamburglar and a juvenile—to relatively cooler waters in the spring.

According to VIMS great white sharks prefer cooler waters, which are more likely to harbor their favorite prey, cold-water seals. Cold water can also offer great whites a competitive advantage as predators, because unlike most other sharks, they can control their body temperature.

Still, there’s no competitive advantage quite like finding your prey ensnared in fishing gear.

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