10 Fun Facts About Whale Sharks

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are the largest fish & sharks in the world. Found in tropical waters around the world, these majestic sharks can be found in shallow pelagic zones off the coast of India, the Maldives, Central America, Southeast Asia, South Africa, and western Australia. 

Often confused for whales, these massive yet beautiful animals attract thousands of divers and photographers from all over the world. 

diver having fun with whale sharks

So what’s special about a whale shark? Let’s find out. 

10 fun whale shark facts facts

1. Whale sharks are indeed sharks, not whales

Despite the confusing name, whale sharks have cartilage instead of bones, meaning they are true sharks. They’re the largest living shark & fish, growing up to 40 feet in length and weighing over 40,000 pounds. 

But despite their great size and family relations, they’re unlike other sharks. They’re often called “gentle giants’ because of their docile nature, even around swimmers & divers. 

2.They lay eggs inside their body which produce live young

Do whale sharks lay eggs? Though there are a handful of shark species that lay eggs, whale sharks are not one of them. Sexually mature whale sharks (25-30 years old) give birth to hundreds of live young at a time. 

The scientific term for this is ovoviviparity, meaning females produce eggs that hatch inside them. The live young, which are no more than 1-2 feet long, are left to fend for themselves immediately at birth. Unlike whales, female whale sharks do not stay with their young.

3. They can live to be 130years old

Because baby whale sharks are left to fend for themselves, just 10% of them make it to adulthood. Most of them are eaten by larger prey like larger fish, whales, and other sharks.

But if they manage to make it to adulthood, they live to be as old as humans. Their average lifespan is 70-100 years but scientists have determined that some have actually grown to be 130 years old.

4. They have fingerprints, just like humans

The hallmark spots that give whale sharks their signature look are unique to individuals. Much like human fingerprints, each shark has a unique pattern of spots. 

This helps researchers accurately identify and track sightings to learn more about their migrations, behavior, and conservation status. 

5. They’re on a new diet – it’s called millions of tiny plankton 

Whale sharks have a different diet than most sharks because of their inability to bite or chew. Instead, they consume millions of tiny plankton as water passes over their gills, a process known as filter feeding. And thanks to their large mouths which open to over 4 feet wide, they expel over 6000 liters of water each hour during this process, only retaining tiny organisms for nutrition. 

But just because they don’t bite or chew doesn’t mean they don’t have teeth. In fact, they have 3000 teeth spread across 300+ rows that help them trap plankton and other organisms like small fish & shrimp.

whale shark swimming with small organisms alongside

6. They even have teeth on their eyeballs

No, they’re not used for feeding. But these tiny “teeth” on their eyeballs are called dermal denticles, a defense mechanism used to protect their vision during a feeding frenzy. 

These tiny scale-like structures are similar to human molars and serve to protect the outer layer of their eyes. As an added bonus, whale sharks are also able to roll their entire eyeball back into the eye socket, protecting it from predators or debris. 

7. Michael Phelps swims twice as fast as whale sharks

They travel thousands of miles around the world each year but they don’t do it very quickly. 

But just how fast do whale sharks swim? Their average swimming pace is about 3 mph, which is half as slow as Michael Phelps, who swam at a top speed of 6 mph in 2010.

8. They can dive over a mile deep

Though they spend most of their time at the surface feeding or migrating, whale sharks often dive to depths of 2000+ feet. Some have been known to dive as deep as 6000 feet, over a mile below the surface.

Unfortunately, scientists still don’t know what they’re doing on these deep dives. 

9. Whale sharks don’t sleep

How do whale sharks sleep? Well, they don’t. Like most sharks, they must continue swimming to pass water over their gills so that they can breathe.

And though they don’t sleep per se, their brain enters a sort of “standby mode” while they continue swimming. This enables their brain to rest while maintaining the critical flow of water. 

10. They’re endangered

Though they’re different than most sharks, they do have one thing in common with most shark species – they’re endangered. 

They’re classified as “endangered” by the IUCN, mostly as a result of bycatch, illegal fishing activity, and shark finning. Though the actual number of whale sharks remaining is unknown, it’s estimated to be half of what it was a century ago, indicating a sharp decline due to human interference. 

If you want to help protect these sharks, reduce your seafood consumption, support whale shark tourism, and raise awareness for these beautiful, endangered animals. 

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