Whale Shark
Rhincodon typus

Photo: Whale shark with small fish
Gentle giants, whale sharks filter-feed, swimming with their wide mouths open, collecting plankton and small fish.
Photograph by Brian J. Skerry
Map: Locator map for the whale shark
 Whale Shark range

Fast Facts

Type: Fish
Diet: Carnivore
Size: 18 to 32.8 ft (5.5 to 10 m)
Weight: Average, 20.6 tons (18.7 tonnes)
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.

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 feed, it juts out its formidably sized jaws and sucks in everything in the vicinity. It then shuts its mouth, forcing water to filter out of its gills. Everything that remains becomes the giant shark's dinner.

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 Taiwan and the Philippines.