11 Gripping Whale Shark Facts

Whale shark swimming underwater.

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Whale sharks are giant fish characterized by their white spots, a white belly, and a broad, flattened head with wide-set eyes. Among the most charismatic sea creatures on Earth, whale sharks are unique because of their size, long life expectancy, and a variety of distinctive physical characteristics. Here are a few little-known facts about whale sharks.

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Whale Sharks Are the Biggest Fish in the World

Whale shark swimming with scuba diver.

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While they’re known as whale sharks, these incredible animals are actually the world’s largest fish. Whale sharks can grow up to almost 60 feet in length, but average closer to about 40 feet. These huge animals typically weigh over 30,000 pounds — about the same as a city bus. Because of their massive size, whale sharks are slow swimmers, reaching top speeds just over 3 miles per hour.

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They Live in Tropical and Warm Temperate Seas

In addition to being large in size, whale sharks are broad in distribution. Whale sharks are comfortable in deep and shallow coastal environments, as well as in reef lagoons and coral atolls. That said, they prefer water temperatures of at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 

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Whale Sharks Can Travel Thousands of Miles

In spite of how slowly they swim, whale sharks migrate thousands of miles between feeding grounds. In fact, they’ve been spotted everywhere from Australia, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, to India, South Africa, and the Galapagos Islands. There have also been whale shark sightings in Belize and Mexico.

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Whale Sharks Have Tiny Teeth Around Their Eyes

Closeup of whale shark's eye.

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Not only can whale sharks protect their eyes by retracting them, they are also surrounded by hundreds of dermal denticles — also known as placoid scales. These tiny structures resemble teeth and are made from bony tissue and an enamel-like material, both of which act to shield the animal’s eyes from threats to their vision.

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They Have About 3,000 Teeth

As filter feeders, whale sharks have more than 300 rows of tiny teeth and 20 filter pads. In total, each whale shark has about 3,000 teeth, each less than a quarter of an inch in size. Interestingly, whale shark teeth are not used for feeding — instead, it's their filter pads that enable them to sieve food out of seawater. Whale sharks are capable of sifting food particles as small as 0.04 inches in size through the gill rakers on their filter pads.

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Whale Sharks Can Open Their Mouths Up to Five Feet Wide

Side view of whale shark with open mouth.

Gregory Sweeney / Getty Images 

Not surprisingly, whale sharks have huge mouths to match their massive bodies. In fact, in the 1950s, a 40-foot whale shark was recorded as having a 5-foot mouth — though 4 feet is more common. This huge mouth opening helps whale sharks, which are suction filter-feeders, capture their diet of plankton, small fish, and crustaceans. 

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They Breathe Through Gills and Don’t Need to Surface

Unlike true whales, which have to surface in order to breathe, whale sharks breathe through gills like other fish. This enables them to dive to depths of around 2,300 feet and stay underwater for long periods of time. Physiologically, a whale shark has five gills on each side of its head, with spongy material inside that also assists with filter feeding.

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Close up view of whale shark feeding.

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Whale sharks are one of only three so-called filter feeding sharks, including basking sharks and megamouth sharks. Their diet consists primarily of planktonic organisms like krill, copepods, fish eggs, and larvae. However, they are also known to eat nektonic organisms, including everything from small crustaceans to sardines, small tunas, and squid. 

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Their Pups Are Born Live

Like many sharks, whale sharks give birth to live pups rather than laying eggs. In fact, whale sharks are said to be ovoviviparous, meaning they can carry about 300 embryos at a time — with each at a different stage of development. Pups are between 16 and 24 inches long at birth, but, interestingly, there have been few sightings of these young whale sharks.

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They Can Live Up to About 130 Years

A study in Marine and Freshwater Research reports that these majestic creatures can live to the ripe old age of about 130. That said, it’s estimated that less than 10% of whale sharks survive to adulthood, largely because young whale sharks don’t have the size necessary to intimidate against — and survive — predation. 

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Whale Sharks Are Endangered

Whale shark at surface of water near fishing boat.

wildestanimal / Getty Images 

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whale sharks are classified as endangered, and their populations are decreasing. This means that they face a high risk of extinction because of factors like decreasing populations and geographic range. Sadly, this is due in large part to the threats posed by human recreation and various industries, including oil and gas drilling, and the fishing and harvesting of marine resources. 

What’s more, whale sharks are threatened by shipping lanes, and a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated that about 1 in 5 whale sharks has been injured by a commercial vessel.

Save the Whale Sharks

  • Reduce your reliance on petroleum in an effort to decrease the need for drilling.
  • Stop purchasing single-use plastics that will pollute the oceans.
  • Choose sustainable seafood that doesn’t contribute to issues associated with bycatch.
  • Donate to an organization that supports whale sharks, like Ocean Conservancy
View Article Sources
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