A good way to make that kayak you’re nestled in feel super-small? Add an amped-up great white shark to the mix.

Footage from northeastern New Zealand’s Eastern Cape waters last month illustrates this point pretty darn dramatically. A kayak fisherman, Greg Potter, found himself becoming something of a third-wheel participant in a vigorous predatory dance playing out between a juvenile white shark and a fur seal.

The encounter took place about 10 kilometres off Waihua Bay in the Gisborne Region of New Zealand’s North Island/Te Ika-a-Māui. Potter, an accomplished kayak angler, was steering his pedal-drive craft in search of tuna when he noticed a distant disturbance that he initially thought might be that very quarry. Peddling closer, he realised the leaping and splashing that had caught his eye stemmed, instead, from a great white’s dramatic pursuit of a seal: a fast-paced, partly aerial chase involving impressive breaches by both the toothy fish and the flippered mammal.

Potter decided to film all of this from a safe distance. That was the plan, anyway, but then his kayak appeared to fall on the seal’s radar. The harried pinniped beelined for his craft, with (unnervingly) the great white in tow. They were, as Potter told the New Zealand Herald, “like just flying through the water.”

And soon enough, Potter was literally right in the middle of the action, the seal leaping directly beside the kayak and the shark torpedoing into his ‘yak – not once but twice. That second time, the angler nearly took a nosedive into the drink.

“If it had managed to get me out of the kayak,” Potter told the Herald, “that could have been a pretty disastrous ending. I was dressed in full black pretty much [...] I can only imagine what the shark would have made of my legs thrashing around. That does give me chills thinking about that.”

Fortunately, Potter didn’t end up in the water, and managed to head into shore without turning into a seal stand-in.

The prolonged, rather acrobatic pursuit this apparent whippersnapper of a great white executed contrasts with what we might think of as the “classic” strategy of a white shark attacking a pinniped: that sudden, explosive (and sometimes airborne) strike from below that may kill or incapacitate the victim outright. Michelle Jewell, a research associate with Michigan State University Museum who’s worked extensively with this magnificent macropredator, told me by email that the New Zealand shark’s technique – or, perhaps we should say, lack thereof – was more evidence for a great white still learning the ropes in the seal-snagging department.

“The behaviour alone, of it continually chasing this seal, is also signature of an inexperienced juvenile shark,” she said. “Adult sharks would not keep wasting their energy chasing the seal at the surface for that long.”

A bit of trial and error is just part of the game for a great white shark, which often tends to target bigger and bigger prey as it grows (and develops broader teeth): from squid, rays, and bony fish to increasing amounts of marine-mammal meat – especially pinnipeds and small to mid-sized cetaceans, as well as the calves and carcasses of baleen whales. That said, studies show that white sharks are not fussy eaters and exhibit a great deal of individual variation, with, for example, pelagic fish such as tuna, mackerel, and swordfish as well as large squid and other non-mammalian nosh remaining important in the adult meal plan, not least for white sharks away from pinniped rookeries. 

In New Zealand – a global epicentre for the species – great whites have been recorded feeding on various bony fishes, rays, and other sharks as well as fur seals and sea lions, southern elephant and leopard seals, dolphins, and whale blubber.

Besides the potential insights into a great white shark’s learning curve, Jewell also noted that the kayak angler’s experience was a cautionary reminder for humans who reckon themselves mere passive observers of predatory/prey drama. “The kayaker did as good a job as he could to stay out of the way,” she told me. “But something everyone on the water should keep in mind is that anything – seals, fish – anything being chased by a predator is looking for refuge or camouflage, and you see that play out in this video. At the end, the seal came over to the kayak to use it as cover, which is why the kayaker got caught up in the action.

“If you’re seeing something happening on the water,” she continued, “you’re not just watching it – you’re part of it!”

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