An expired great whale represents a truly epic smorgasbord for scavengers: from the mightiest of all beachwrack for polar and brown bears and a floating blubber station for seabirds, to a whale-fall bonanza welcomed by hagfish, crabs, and marine worms way down on the seafloor.

And all the way from the rolling swells to the dark depths of the midnight zone, sharks are commonly top-dog attendees at a good old-fashioned whale feed. Indeed, recent drone footage from Queensland’s Fraser Coast provides only the latest striking evidence that nothing draws in a gaggle of sharks like a dead whale.

In late June, the Queensland Department of Environment & Science (DES) released video showing some 50 tiger sharks – biggest of the carcharhinids, or requiem sharks, and among the largest predatory fish in the ocean – thronging a dead humpback whale off Hervey Bay in the Great Sandy Marine Park. 

In a DES press release, Senior Ranger David Clifton noted the drone footage – which shows tiger sharks sawing into the floating humpback and hordes of shadowy shapes cruising below – served as a reminder, for one thing, to be shark-aware if ever you encounter such a carcass. “Where there are dead whales, there are likely sharks nearby,” he said, “and this vision clearly shows why this is the case.”

Mildly (or majorly) intimidating though the sight of so many hungry sharks might be, it’s also an inspiring demonstration of essential ecological flux in the Coral Sea. “We’re fortunate here in the Great Sandy Marine Park that we can experience these natural processes firsthand,” Clifton said in the press release.

Tiger sharks commonly cameo at whale carcasses throughout the world’s tropical and warm-temperate seas, and numbers on the order of the Hervey Bay throng have been recorded before. In 2002, for example, researchers tallied a minimum of 46 tiger sharks attending to a dead blue whale over the course of eight days in New Caledonia’s Prony Bay. 

The gargantuan corpse of a whale doesn’t just draw multiple sharks of the same species: It can also set the stage for rare, up-close-and-personal interspecies scavenging congregations. Tiger sharks have been seen gnawing into dead whales alongside their smaller (but equally feisty) cousin the bull shark, and, in a number of cases, a bigger, more distant relative: the great white, for which whalemeat is also a significant and eagerly sought-out food source.

As an in-depth 2019 Global Ecology & Conservation review observes, outward signs of aggression between sharks scavenging whale carcasses tends to be minimal, kept in check perhaps by the sheer quantity of available food and a tacitly acknowledged size-based pecking order. 

Relations also seemed to be generally peaceful between several tiger sharks and a saltwater crocodile that were observed scavenging a belly-up humpback carcass near Western Australia’s Montgomery Reef in 2019. (That was before the 15-metre carcass washed ashore on a red-letter day for local beachgoing crocs.)

Such interspecies feasts have revealed interesting differences in whale-munching styles, most likely simply due to the different jaw mechanics and tooth structures of the scavengers’ business ends. The authors of the Global Ecology & Conservation paper, for example, compared the feeding actions of great whites and tiger sharks at whale carcasses (including a dead sperm whale off Australia that drew both of these macropredators in at the same time). They observed that white sharks – boasting large triangular serrated teeth – commonly employ vigorous head-thrashing to rend off flesh, while tigers – which have shorter, asymmetrically curved serrated teeth – used a slower variant of head-shaking called “saw-biting,” and also sometimes executed body rolls while feeding, something not observed in great whites. 

And during the Montgomery Reef shark-and-croc scavenging event, researchers noted, “Unlike the half-moon bite marks left by the tiger sharks, the crocodile appeared to pull and tear smaller pieces of flesh from the carcass with a ripping motion [...]. There were no major apparent bite marks left like those seen from tiger sharks.” 

(We’re focused on scavenging here, but ought to note that humpback whales – particularly calves, but also injured or ailing juveniles and even adults – occasionally fall prey to large sharks, tiger sharks included. If you’re interested, we did a deep dive on that topic a couple of years back—inspired, as it happens, by another tiger-shark whale-scavenging soiree.)

East Australian humpback whales are currently making their northbound migration from summer feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica to calving waters on and around the Great Barrier Reef. The shark-swarmed humpback carcass off Hervey Bay– which the World Cetacean Alliance declared the first Whale Heritage Site in 2019 for its sustainable whale-watching industry – was one of several dead baleen whales recorded in June in this part of the Coral Sea. 

The Queensland DES press release chalked this up to the continued recovery of regional whale populations following major declines during the industrial-whaling era, noting “as the population of whales migrating up Queensland’s coast continues to grow, so will the number of whales dying of natural causes.”

And more whales dying of natural causes means, of course, an ongoing windfall for Coral Sea tiger sharks.