Photograph by Brian J. Skerry
Whale Shark Range
- 18 to 32.8 ft (5.5 to 10 m)
- Average, 20.6 tons (18.7 tonnes)
- Group name:
- Protection status:
- Did you know?
- The largest whale shark ever measured was 40 feet (12.2 meters) long; however, the species is thought to grow even bigger.
- Size relative to a bus:
As the largest fish in the sea, reaching lengths of 40 feet (12 meters) or more, whale sharks have an enormous menu from which to choose. Fortunately for most sea-dwellers—and us!—their favorite meal is plankton. They scoop these tiny plants and animals up, along with any small fish that happen to be around, with their colossal gaping mouths while swimming close to the water's surface.
The whale shark, like the world's second largest fish, the basking shark, is a filter feeder. In order to eat, the beast juts out its formidably sized jaws and passively filters everything in its path. The mechanism is theorized to be a technique called “cross-flow filtration,” similar to some bony fish and baleen whales.
The whale shark's flattened head sports a blunt snout above its mouth with short barbels protruding from its nostrils. Its back and sides are gray to brown with white spots among pale vertical and horizontal stripes, and its belly is white. Its two dorsal fins are set rearward on its body, which ends in a large dual-lobbed caudal fin (or tail).
Preferring warm waters, whale sharks populate all tropical seas. They are known to migrate every spring to the continental shelf of the central west coast of Australia. The coral spawning of the area's Ningaloo Reef provides the whale shark with an abundant supply of plankton.
Although massive, whale sharks are docile fish and sometimes allow swimmers to hitch a ride. They are currently listed as a vulnerable species; however, they continue to be hunted in parts of Asia, such as the Philippines.
Learn all you wanted to know about sharks with videos, quizzes, puzzles, and more.
Now under threat in the increasingly humanized seas, sharks still find refuge and freedom in the Bahamas. Join photographer Brian Skerry in what he describes as "a Garden of Eden for sharks."
Find out what makes the great white shark the largest predatory fish on Earth with this interactive feature from NGC's Great White Odyssey.
Would you survive a shark attack? Watch the survival guide video to learn more.
Learn more about what National Geographic/Waitt grantee Nick Whitney is doing to identify mating behavior in adult nurse sharks during their mating season in the Florida Keys.
Special Ad Section