These gentle giants are filter-feeders and are harmless to humans. Other whale shark facts include that they can reach lengths of over 40 feet (12m), all the while feeding on only the tiniest of ocean organisms – plankton!
Whale sharks are striking in their appearance not only for their size but also for their unique pattern of white spots and bars covering its gray body. The whale shark, with its calm nature, is becoming popular with eco-tourists hoping to snorkel alongside these gentle giants.
Whale sharks are the largest living fish on the planet. They belong to the group called Chondrichthyes, which includes sharks, rays, and skates. These fish have skeletons made entirely of cartilage (known as a cartilaginous skeleton) in comparison to other fishes that have skeletons made of bone. Little else is known about the life history of this elusive giant.
Whale Shark Facts & Tidbits
Similar to the fingerprint of a human, the pattern of spots around the gill area is unique to each individual allowing researchers to identify individual sharks.
The only known predator of the whale shark is humans.
The mouth of the whale shark is massive, reaching a width of approximately 1 meter (over 3 feet).
Their greatest threat is the loss of prey due to climate change and habitat disturbance and ocean pollution.
Only 3 shark species (the whale shark, the basking shark, and the megamouth shark) are filter feeders, effectively straining their prey directly from the water column.
The whale shark can reach a length of 40 feet or more and weighs 20 or more tons.
They prefer surface sea-water temperatures between 21 – 25°C (69 – 77°F)
The whale shark can have up to 3000 teeth and between 300-350 rows of teeth at one time.
Female whale sharks can have up to 300 shark pups at one time.
Males are identified by 2 claspers near their pelvic fin, a feature not present on the female species.
Whale sharks can live up 70 years of age.
They do not become sexually mature until their early 30’s.
A very common question is ‘How many bones does a whale shark have?’. The answer is none, as a member of the Chondrichthyes group, their skeleton is made up of entirely of cartilage.
> Wait, there is more! Click here to learn about the current threats to shark populations
Prefer to watch and learn about whale sharks? Check out this beautiful 2 min National Geographic video below:
Worldwide, whale sharks occur in waters of over 100 countries and have a broad distribution usually between latitudes 30°N and 35°S in tropical and warm temperate seas, both in oceanic and coastal waters. They congregate in feeding areas, often undertaking long migrations to reach areas rich in food sources.
Hot spots for viewing these sharks areMexico,Belize, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, the Galapagos, Honduras, South Africa, Mozambique, Seychelles, and India.
RED Travel Mexico, an award-winning social enterprise that leads to responsible learning expeditions around Whale Sharks in Mexico. To learn about their incredible ‘Whale Shark Researcher for a Day’ itinerary, click here.
IUCN Status: Vulnerable / Population: Decreasing
Because whale sharks live long lives (estimates say 70+ years), mature late, and do not produce offspring until 30+ years of age, and give birth to a relatively few offspring during their lifetime, they are especially threatened by human exploitation.
Threats to the whale shark include habitat loss which results in loss of prey species, coastal development resulting in marine pollution, collision with boats, and disturbance or harassment by boats and divers engaged in irresponsible tourism activities.
The biggest threat, however, is the trade of whale shark parts including their fins which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.