Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog

Your Complete Guide to Whale Sharks

a fish swimming under waterImmortalized as mindless, ferocious killers, sharks are iconic in horror movies. Most people have a natural and healthy aversion to the sharp-toothed, menacing-looking creatures.

Still, Hollywood does a disservice to the entire species. Sharks vary in size and temperament. Not all large varieties should induce fear from humans. The whale shark is a gentle giant, and it is among the most fascinating nonmammalian vertebrates.

What Does a Whale Shark Look Like

The whale shark is the largest living fish, reaching lengths up to 33 feet and weighing up to 41,000 pounds. The animal has a large, flat head with a blunt snout that runs vertically to its mouth.

From the nostrils, the shark has short barbels — feelers or tentacles. The barbels are sensory organs that work like whiskers on a cat, allowing it to track food sources.

The back and sides of the animal are gray to brown in color, with various white spots. The body also has pale horizontal and vertical stripes, except on the belly, which is white.

The mouth of an adult whale shark is about 5 feet wide, with over 300 teeth separated into rows. Despite having teeth, the shark is a filter feeder and does not use them. Unlike other sharks, the whale shark does not have predatory capabilities, so their mouths are in the front of the head and contain filter pads.

Are Whale Sharks Aggressive?

Whale sharks are not aggressive; they are pretty gentle with only an intimidating appearance. The animal will not bother humans at all, which is why there are many photographs of divers swimming alongside these enormous animals.

The sharks are feeder sharks. Because of their enormous size, they need to feed constantly, so divers often see the fish swimming with its mouth open. The filter pads and teeth help the shark take in large amounts of water and filter it for food.

A whale shark will never intentionally eat a human or another animal. However, because of its way of feeding, some smaller fish will inevitably end up in the shark’s diet. The best advice for vacationers or divers is to avoid the docile shark’s open mouth.

The biggest threat a whale shark poses to humans is its massive tail. As the shark swims past, some unfortunate divers can get caught up in the current. Other than that, whale sharks are peaceful.

Where Do Whale Sharks Live?

Whale sharks live in the ocean, and more specifically in temperate to tropical waters. While experts classify temperate waters as an ocean climate between 32° F and 72° F, whale sharks are rarely found in any water colder than 70° F. Tropical water temperatures range between 68° F and 95° F, providing a year-round sanctuary for whale sharks.

For interested travelers, whale sharks are plentiful off the coast of India, the Maldives, South Africa, Belize, and Southeast Asia. However, whale sharks will migrate to mating grounds and to find food.

Whale sharks usually stick to shallow waters because that is where their primary food sources thrive. Lucky divers can see a shark firsthand if they hang around lagoons or coral long enough. While the animal can dive to 1,900 meters, it rarely tests its limits.

When whale sharks migrate, they take part in one of the longest migrations of the animal kingdom. The migration can span 20,000 km and can take as many as 841 days for some subgroups.

What Do Whale Sharks Eat?

Whale sharks eat primarily plants, fish, fish eggs, and other animals unfortunate enough to swim into their gaping mouths. The shark’s diet typically comprises krill, shrimp, plankton, and algae.

While the animal has hundreds of teeth, it does not use them. The teeth are so small that they are essentially useless. Whale sharks use their gill rakers as suction rakers to catch their meals.

The size of the animal and its wide mouth create an incredible suction force. By opening and closing its mouth, the shark creates the suction, capturing many small fish and anything else that dares to swim by.

The availability of food often dictates the animal’s migratory habits. For example, whale sharks travel to the Ningaloo Reef every spring to feast on large plankton blooms. Plankton is the animal’s favorite and primary food source.

How To Help Preserve the Whale Shark Species

Whale sharks are magnificent, and they can live up to 100 years if given a chance. The species is on the endangered species list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. People can help the animal survive if their willing to put in the effort.

Ocean pollution, especially plastics, is one of the most significant threats to all marine life. If people can reduce the use of single-use plastics and participate in recycling and beach cleaning programs, it can go a long way in supporting the survival of whale sharks and other animals.

People can also reduce seafood consumption, opting for sustainable seafood instead. Commercial fishing eliminates necessary food sources for the whale shark. Also, the fishing methods are often dangerous for the sharks.

Finally, people can educate themselves about whale sharks and other marine life. They can take trips to see and experience the animals firsthand in their natural environment, or they can participate in research projects and volunteer programs.

Whale sharks are the gentle giants of the ocean. While their intimidating size and gaping smiles are intimidating, the animal poses no real threat to humans. The giant fish is truly a miracle of nature, and it deserves respect and admiration.

While whale shark sightings in California are rare, they are possible. In 2022, tourists spotted a whale shark off the coast of San Diego, calling it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even if tourists don’t get to see a whale shark near the California coast, they have many opportunities to see other marine life, including the other giant of the sea: whales.

At Next Level Sailing, we want to help everyone have once-in-a-lifetime experiences. From whale watching tours to coastal boat rides, our team is here to help tourists have a vacation to remember. Contact a tour guide for more information and reserve your tour.