Meet the Whale Shark: The Biggest Fish in the World

Dive into the world of the whale shark, the gentle giant of the sea. Here’s everything you need to know about the world's largest fish — where it lives, what it eats, and its conservation status.

By Jake Parks
Jan 8, 2024 3:00 PM
Scubadiver swimming with whale shark
(Credit: Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock)


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Whale sharks, with their enormous size and docile demeanor, are a remarkable example of nature's grandeur and complexity. That’s why these creatures have long intrigued both scientists and ocean enthusiasts alike.

Here, we’ll unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the whale shark, providing a comprehensive look at their physical traits, their behavior, and the challenges they face.

But first, let’s cover the basics.

What Is a Whale Shark?

(Credit: Fata Morgana by Andrew Marriott/Shutterstock)

Is a Whale Shark a Whale or a Shark?

Despite its name, the whale shark is not a whale but a type of shark. Specifically, a filter-feeding carpet shark with the scientific name Rhincodon typus. However, unlike typical aggressive sharks, whale sharks are known for their passive nature.

Where Do Whale Sharks Live?

Whale sharks are found in warm tropical seas with water temperatures above about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius). They are often spotted near the equator, but during certain times of the year, they migrate to places like the Ningaloo Reef in Australia and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

What Do Whale Sharks Eat?

Whale sharks are filter feeders, primarily dining on plankton, krill, small fish, and occasionally on small squid or crustaceans. They feed by swimming with open mouths – which can stretch up to 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide – filtering up to 1,600 gallons of water per hour through their gills to capture their tiny prey.

Read More: What Makes These 7 Shark Species Stand Out Among the Rest?

What Does a Whale Shark Look Like?

(Credit: belizediversity/Shutterstock)

How Big Is a Whale Shark?

When it comes to size, whale sharks truly live up to their name. They can reach weights of more than 40,000 pounds (18,000 kilograms), which is more than the weight of a double-decker bus. This makes them not only the largest fish in the ocean, but also the largest fish known to ever live on Earth.

How Long Is a Whale Shark?

Adult whale sharks typically reach lengths of up to about 39 feet (12 meters) long. However, the longest accurately recorded whale shark was a whopping 62 feet (18 meters) long.

What Color Are Whale Sharks?

The fins and backs of whale sharks are adorned with a unique pattern of creamy white spots and stripes set against a dark grayish, brownish, or blueish backdrop. The pattern of every whale shark is distinct, like a human fingerprint, which allows researchers and whale watchers to identify individual sharks. Meanwhile, the bellies of whale sharks are white.

Read More: How These 4 Deep Sea Sharks Lurk in the Ocean

Are Whale Sharks Dangerous?

(Credit: Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock)

Do Whale Sharks Eat People?

Despite their imposing size, whale sharks are not a threat to humans. They have small teeth and their filter-feeding lifestyle is geared toward consuming tiny organisms rather than large prey.

Are Whale Sharks Friendly?

Whale sharks are known for their docile nature, often allowing researchers, divers, and snorkelers to swim right up next to them. However, as with any wild animal (especially one of the largest in the world), you should only approach them with respect and caution to ensure a safe, unforgettable encounter.

Read More: Why Do Sharks Attack Humans?

Why Are Whale Sharks Endangered?

(Credit: Vladimir Turkenich/Shutterstock)

How Many Whale Sharks Are Left?

Researchers are unsure of the exact population of whale sharks, but they estimate some 130,000 to 200,000 whale sharks currently roam the seas. However, researchers do know that the total number of whale sharks in the world is declining due to human demand for their fins, meat, and oil. In fact, since 2016, whale sharks have been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

How Long Do Whale Sharks Live?

Whale sharks are among the longest-living fish species, with an estimated lifespan of between about 70 and 100 years. And some research suggests whale sharks can live up to about 130 years old. However, their long lifespan also means that they reproduce relatively slowly, which can impact their population recovery rates.

Read More: Almost 20 Million Years Ago, Sharks Nearly Went Extinct

The whale shark is one of the ocean's most majestic and mysterious creatures. These gentle giants, with their awe-inspiring size and peaceful demeanor, not only fascinate onlookers, they also play a pivotal role in the marine ecosystem. Yet, as researchers confront the stark reality of their declining numbers, the urgency for their conservation has never been more dire. After all, the conservation of whale sharks isn’t just about saving a single species; it’s about preserving the balance of our oceans.

Frequently Asked Questions About Whale Sharks

Are Whale Sharks Fish?

Yes, whale sharks are fish. They are part of the Chondrichthyes class, which includes fish with skeletons primarily made of cartilage, such as sharks, rays, skates, and sawfish.

Is a Whale Shark a Mammal?

No, despite their large size and the 'whale' in their name, whale sharks are not mammals. They are fish. Like other fish, whale sharks breathe through gills, while marine mammals such as true whales breathe using their lungs.

Where Are Whale Sharks Found?

Whale sharks are global nomads, found in all tropical oceans. They tend to prefer warmer waters and are known to migrate great distances over the course of the year for feeding and breeding purposes.

Read More: What Can Shark Brains Tell Us About Their Fascinating Intelligence and Behaviors?

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