A group of tiger sharks in South Africa has been filmed enjoying some fresh seafood in a half-shell: loggerhead sea turtle!

A post shared by Paul Wildman (@builtbywildman) on Aug 1, 2017 at 11:33am PDT

Elsewhere in the world, these apex predators have earned a reputation as sea-turtle specialists, but here in South Africa, tiger sharks typically show little interest in reptilian fare. That makes this clip particularly interesting. The footage was captured by videographer Paul Wildman, who stumbled across the oceanic chow-down near Durban's Aliwal Shoal, a popular dive site on the country's eastern coast.

"I'd never seen this kind of predation before with tiger sharks," says Wildman. "I'd seen some footage before, but there's nothing like watching it up close and personal. It was amazing to watch and pretty intense as well."

Wildlman notes that an impressive 16 tiger sharks – ranging from about one to four metres – passed by the carcass that day, giving him a chance to observe their feeding behaviour in detail. 

"It was interesting to watch how only the larger sharks (three meters and up) knew what to do, and had the jaw capacity to deal with the turtle shell," he says. "The rest of the sharks knew that there was food but had no idea how to tackle the turtle."

The head and flippers were eaten first, followed by the softer underbelly. "They would flip the turtle over," says Wildman. "Then they would rake their teeth over the belly, breaking it open to reveal the internal organs. From there it was a matter of swimming around with [the carcass] sucking up the meat."

Named for the square heads and powerful jaw muscles that allow them to crush hard-shelled prey like clams and urchins, loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) are the most abundant turtle species in these waters. The animals move through the area to lay eggs on the sandy beaches of the St Lucia and Maputaland Marine Reserve, but only an estimated 500 of them nest here annually.

Female turtles return every two to three years, and their migration takes place between November and January – so this lone ranger's stopover likely wasn't egg-related. It's possible that we're looking at a roving male or sub-adult (but with half its body missing, it's tough to say). 

Gently graceful as they appear, these reptiles are known to aggressively defend their feeding grounds from competitors: local fishermen have even reported seeing loggerhead fights to the death over access to seagrass beds. Perhaps this unfortunate reptile was making use of Aliwal's rich reef habitat when the predators passed through. After some 45 minutes on the carcass, the sharks moved along.

"They seemed to be in a bit of a trance," says Wildman, who eventually exited the water to film the feeding event from the safety of his boat. "The biggest actually pushed her head out of the water, up against the rubber duck, and then rolled back in."

Wildlman hopes that viewers will find the encounter as intriguing as he did: a lucky opportunity to witness natural behaviour from some of the ocean's top predators. 

"When I post a video or an image of a shark, I hope people see them as amazing, charismatic creatures of the ocean that have an important job maintaining the reefs," he says. "People want to see big great whites with lots of teeth, but it's also amazing to see these animals doing what they do best and how they do it. They aren't savage creatures out to get us."

Tiger sharks' recurved teeth act like the perfect "can openers" for breaking into carapaces, but turtles don't always make for easy pickings. The crafty creatures have some defence tactics in their arsenal, like giving their assailants "the cold shoulder":



Top header image: Shutterstock