Fun Whale Shark Facts

Swimming with whale sharks is on the bucket list for lots of travellers. These placid, enormous fish are a spectacular sight, seeing them swim towards you out of the blue is a breathtaking experience.

Despite them being regular visitors to Australian waters – especially on Ningaloo Reef, relatively little is know about. But if you want to improve your knowledge of these giants of the ocean, check out below what has been learnt about whale sharks so far.

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Whale Shark on Ningaloo Reef
Whale Shark on Ningaloo Reef

Are they Whales or Sharks?

Whale sharks are sharks, not whales. This means their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. But don’t be alarmed, because they are filter feeders, whale sharks are not going to attack people.

The Biggest Fish in the World

Whale sharks are not only the largest type of shark, but they are also the biggest fish in the world. They can be up to 12m long.

But what about whales? Whales are not fish – they are mammals. Fish get oxygen by extracting it from the water as it passes over their gills. Whales, and other mammals like us and dolphins use their lungs to get oxygen from the air.

How much does a Whale Shark Weigh?

You would expect the biggest fish in the world to top the scales with an impressive number – and it does. Weight estimates vary widely but even the low estimate has, an adult whale shark weighing around 15 tons – which is about 15 average sized cars.

How long can Whale Sharks Live?

Whale sharks can live to be over 100 years old. Many don’t reach anything like this age as they are hunted by Orcas, great white sharks and tiger sharks.

Whale Shark Pattern
The Unique Pattern of a Whale Shark

Whale Sharks have a Fingerprint

While whale sharks obviously don’t have fingers, the spots and stripes on their body form a unique pattern. No two whale sharks look the same so researchers can identify them by their individual appearance.

How Fast do Whale Sharks Swim?

Whale sharks won’t ever set any speed records. They cruise the ocean at around 4 kph. If you think that doesn’t sound fast, wait until you try and swim alongside one. You will quickly realise how inefficient humans are in the water!

Whale Shark Relatives

The closest relatives to the whale shark are the nurse, zebra and carpet shark. They are all similar in the way their mouth is in front of their eyes and the positioning of their fins.

Whale Shark feeding on plankton
Whale Shark Feeding on Plankton

What do Whale Sharks Eat?

Whale sharks are filter feeders, so they mostly eat krill (which is a tiny crustacean and form of plankton). But they will also gobble up jellyfish, small schooling fish and larvae of crabs and fish.

How do Whale Sharks Eat?

Like manta rays, whale sharks are filter feeders. They primarily feed on plankton, small fish, and other microscopic organisms. They use their wide mouths to filter large amounts of water and extract food through their gill rakers.

Filter Feeder with a Bite

Even though whale sharks are filter feeders, they still have teeth. They are nothing to be afraid of though. The 3000 tiny teeth are known as a vestigial characteristic. This means they might have been used millions of years ago before whale sharks became filter feeders, but they don’t use them now.

And they have Teeth on their Eyes!

That’s right. Not only do whale sharks have tiny teeth in their mouth, but they also have about 3000 even tinier teeth around their eyeball. Whale sharks don’t have eye lids so the tiny teeth, or denticles, are thought to provide some protection for their eyes against predators and tiny particles in the water.

Whale Shark on Ningaloo Reef
Whale Shark on Ningaloo Reef

Where can you see Whale Sharks?

Whale sharks migrate through warm waters so they can be seen in countries with tropical environments. Exmouth and Coral Bay on Ningaloo Reef in Australia is a great place to see whale sharks, you can also see them in waters off Mexico, the Philippines, Maldives, Seychelles, Thailand and Mozambique.

Is it Safe to Swim with Whale Sharks?

Whale sharks have a gentle nature and don’t seem to be bothered by people swimming near them. Because whale sharks swim near the surface, you can get a great look at them. Read more here about what to expect on a whale shark swim.

Where is the Whale Shark Nursery?

One of the great whale shark mysteries is where they mate and give birth. It is obviously somewhere remote, as no one has seen a whale shark give birth to its live young. Our lack of knowledge of their reproductive cycle makes protecting them very challenging.

How Deep can Whale Sharks Dive?

Even though we see whale sharks swimming just beneath the surface, they don’t always swim this shallow. A tagged whale shark was recorded diving to a depth of just over 1900m. That’s deep! But there are deeper divers. Dolphins have been recorded at 2500m below the surface and a beaked whale at 3000m deep.

Steve Klein
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