Top Ten Sharks #1 – The Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus

Looking like a masterpiece oil-on-canvas but this is, allegedly, a photograph. A thing of pure beauty, the whale shark, sunlight glistening through the water’s surface above its head. A couple of remora, a mutualist feeder likely to eat parasites, flakes or skin or even faeces, hang around nearby. The whale shark is an ecosystem unto itself. (Credit: DocTroll CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Given that my mission with the top ten sharks list was to convince people there was more to sharks than just sharp teeth and 70s monster-thriller movies, well if the previous 9 examples haven’t changed your opinion there is only one more trick up the magical shark sleeve that can.

The whale shark is the full shark package, a relentless predator (of predominantly very small things), cute as a button, despite its monster size, and docile to the point of effectively training (there are ecotourism spots where whale sharks are fed to encourage them to be around.)

Not only are they known to be completely passive towards divers, letting them grab a fin and hitch a ride as if a human is no more of a burden than a remora, but younger individuals may even exhibit play behaviours with divers.

Whale shark feeding off the Phillipines. Done to train a steady supply of sharks to come to the islands so that wildlife tourism can allow people to swim with these noble fish. It’s obviously highly controversial, as it promotes unnatural feeding behaviours, yet these placid sharks seem all too willing to indulge. It leads to questions about whether availability and human closeness can help promote conservation efforts, or if it merely commodifies the animal and encourages bad behaviour and bad practice. (Credit: Jun V Lao Paparazsea CC-BY-SA 4.0)

This creature, this gorgeous member of the carpet shark order, the Orectolobiformes (the same order as wobbegongs and nurse sharks) is everything you don’t think of when you hear the word shark and yet – it’s probably everything you should.

In many ways it is a better representative of the Elasmobranchii than what you do probably think of, the tiger shark, the bull shark, the great white – These are all exceptions to a rule of placid, contemplative existence in sharks. There are over 400 extant (living; opposite of extinct) shark species. They mostly just are, and are happy to let humans be, too. Of all of these species only a handful present anything like harm to humans and even then shark ‘attacks’ are so rare compared to how often humans and sharks interact in what is, let’s be honest here, the shark’s home.

The whale shark embodies the dominant shark pattern. Not only are they happy to let us exist, they want us to exist with them, they play with us, they permit us to play with them and they wouldn’t so much as think of attacking us. If only it worked the other way around. Humans have been known to capture whale sharks, to fish them. Again, if you’re feeding a whole village for a month with one shark I can’t complain but, we’re usually more exploitative than that.

From a purely biological perspective the Greenland shark is my number one because of how much is remarkable about it. I mean, the Greenland shark has some complex biochemistry, as well as the longevity thing going for it. The whale shark, well that’s a joy to my heart as well as my head. I love these sharks.

A front-on view of the gentle giant. The size of the mouth is unbelievable! That huge maw, made for gulping in tonnes of water and filtering out plankton to feed such a titanic beast. If this is not actually, literally ‘awesome’ I don’t know what is! (Credit: KAZ2.0 CC-BY-SA 2.0)

It’s not just emotional with the whale shark. It has its name for two reasons, one, like a lot of whales, especially the baleen whales, it is a filter feeder. Two, it is fucking massive.

No, no, no – I mean – FUCKING MASSIVE!

When they’re pups, they’re proper tiddlers, one was found that was only 38cm! By the time they’re juveniles they’re the size of a large great white, somewhere in the region of 5m (15 feet), as a juvenile! Small adult males, maybe hit somewhere in the 8-10m ranges (25-30 feet). The big mammas, though, that’s where it’s at – The largest reliably recorded specimen was around 18.8m (about 60 feet) but female averages are probably in the 12-14m (35-50 feet) range. Maximum potential length is entirely unknown, unreliable reports have put specimens above 20m!

The whale shark size chart, showing approximate lengths for different ages of whale shark and comparing to that tiddly little diver on the right! As you can see, by the time these beasties are juvenile they are dwarfing a human and a mature adult makes a great white look like a guppy. Large adults are increasingly scarce, with total lengths seeming to be decreasing over the years (possibly due to fishing selectively killing the largest individuals) but 15-18m specimens are not unheard of. (Credit: Steveoc 86 CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Unfortunately average size seems to be decreasing and this could be related to whale shark fishing (legally or illegally) going for the biggest catch. Sharks over 14m have increasingly become a rarity.

At their size, though, this creature could do what the hell it wants. We’ve talked about sharks that pretty much do. We haven’t even talked about one of the most pugnacious sharks, the bull shark, that is known to eat, erm, everything, and known to swim, erm, everywhere (including a couple of thousand miles up the Amazon river – freshwater, saltwater, brackish water it’ll go anywhere) the whale shark could have evolved to be a big-toothed, whale smashing, dolphin swallowing mega-predator. It isn’t. It’s lovely. It’s a gentle giant. Much like the basking shark the worst injury you’re likely to get from a whale shark is if you rub it the wrong way – literally! Their skin is made of teeth.

In fact the dermal denticles of the whale shark are remarkable even for sharks because they have a special layer of them to cover and protect their eyes. THEY HAVE TEETH IN THEIR EYES! I know it sounds like a horror-story plot, but actually it’s pretty clever.

They are almost exclusively tropical, preferring warm waters in the region of 20°C and up. Most of their population is Indo-Pacific, hanging out in the Indian ocean (off the East Coast of Africa to the island chains of Asia, and on into the pacific around Australia all the way to South America) but there is also an Atlantic population (Chilling between the East Coast of the US, Central and South America and the West coast of Africa). Basically if it’s in the tropics, there’s probably whale sharks there.

A clip from BBCs Planet Earth series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, in which a whale shark vertically climbs the water column to feast upon a shoal of small fish. Absolutely remarkable behaviour, and whale sharks have been known to target shoals and schools, especially when they are spawning. (Credit: BBC)

Whale sharks live pretty long, mainly pelagic (remember that means it hangs out mostly in the shallow, top layer of the sea, where the light is) lifestyles. Vision is important where there’s light. Last time out we heard how the stealthy, deep-dwelling Greenland shark isn’t particularly bothered by the parasites that latch on to its eyes and basically blind it, well this adaptation in whale sharks is the opposite. They like their eyes and want them to stay healthy. Clearly in the evolutionary past they have suffered with things either trying to eat their eyes or eye parasites and have evolved this clever mechanism of protection. It’s awesome.

Like all the other filter-feeding sharks, they do still have teeth, but they are tiny, millimetres in size which, for a shark this size is effectively vestigial – like human tails. They also have specially adapted filter pads for filtering out food from the water. Like basking sharks, whale sharks can ram feed – where they just swim with their mouths open and take in food as they swim. They are also known to gulp! They and megamouths are believed to do this but I didn’t talk about it in the megamouth article so much because we haven’t seen it, whereas we have seen these titans gulping. Sometimes they’ll even gulp down small fish; sometimes they’ll just move on into a patch of spawning fish and swallow the lot, fish, fish eggs and fish jizz – the whole lot. It’s all good ‘cause it’s all food.

The gulp feeding method is pretty spectacular, effectively using its own mouth to create a negative pressure, creating suction, to take in a huge mouthful of whatever’s in the water and rapidly pushing the water out of its gills to filter out the food. As a chap with a big appetite I admire this! I want to eat a kebab like this!

A demonstration of the power of a whale shark’s gulp, creating a vortex, sucking in all the surrounding fish and plankton and in this case breaking the surface like bathwater running down a plughole. Mag-fucking-nificient! (Credit: BBC America via Giphy)

The whale shark is the largest known living fish species in the sea. Whilst I can’t guarantee there isn’t anything bigger down in the depths, it’s likely to keep that record. It is the largest non-cetacean (whales and dolphins) vertebrate in the world. The only bigger animals on this planet are whales. A tracked female whale-shark clocked over 20,000km on a trans-pacific migration. The estimated lifespan of a whaleshark is in the region of 80-130 years. There’s almost nothing about this fish that is not astounding.

Humans, though, we’re nothing is not an aesthetic species. Vanity is rampant in us; the shallowness of skin-deep appearance sadly seems to mean more to us than fortitude of character. So to appeal to those of you who don’t necessarily care so much about the biology – these creatures are absolutely gorgeous.

Like – ‘no arguments’ levels of gorgeous. As a carpet shark they have a slightly flatter body pattern, ventrodorsal countershading as we’ve seen in so many sharks, with grey-beige topside fading into a mottled-white belly and all covered with a unique pattern of dazzling spots. Its back is lined with ridges, making it look designed, like a speedboat. It has a broad tailfin with a much larger top lobe than the bottom.

This is one of those articles where I want to be my usual irreverent, sarcastic, funny self. I mean, this aquatic pervert has been seen specifically targeting spawning fish – for one thing, spawn-camping is not cool man, for another thing, it’s a cum-guzzler! I just can’t do it. I can’t make fun of this animal. If I ever saw one in the wild I genuinely don’t know what I’d do first, slump in a corner and cry at how beautiful it is or jump into the damn sea with all my clothes on just to be near it!

It moves as if the water around it guides it, rather than it has to move through the water. Swimming with it’s mouth gaping to catch anything edible, any tiny plankton, to fuel its long journeys. Remora and other ‘cleaner’ type fish hang around this moving ecosystem, unafraid to venture into the fish’s mouth, knowing it is nothing if not welcoming of a scale-and-polish. It is big, it is beautiful, the whale shark is truly astounding. (Credit: Oceana via Giphy)

The whale shark can be, should be and is number one shark on many people’s lists. There are so many reasons why it should be but I think the single biggest has to be how much it doesn’t give a damn what you think. If I tell you there’s a potentially 18m shark out there in the tropical oceans that can suck food into its gigantic mouth and swallow it whole, you’d be terrified. Yet the whale shark is everything but terrifying (unless you’re a small fish or plankton and then it’s frankly a nightmare – it’s a portable, sentient black-hole of chaotic death and destruction!) But to humans, it’s the anti-shark shark, it takes all of the media presentation, all of the things we focus on with sharks; the sharp teeth, the big hits, the killing stuff, the smelling blood in the water, the thrill of the hunt, the lifeless eyes – It takes all of that, throws it out of the window and says “I’m big, I’m cute, I’ve got puppy-dog eyes on the side of my head like a massive derp, I eat small stuff. I’m a shark.”

My intention with this list was to show people there’s more to sharks than biting people and being scary – the whale shark is the embodiment of that. It moves so effortlessly, so gracefully, through the water for something of its size that you’d think it was entirely without weight, without mass, without body. The whale shark is almost the very spirit of the ocean brought to life. Simultaneously powerful yet placid, a massive consumer of millions of tiny lives, yet they all work to come together into this beautiful whole. Its broad mouth, which can be over a meter in width, seems to smile, happily, at the prospect of merely being.

The Spirit of the Ocean – I think that’s a great nickname for the whale shark, and it’s the reason it’s my best shark.

The Spirit of the Ocean – Definitely the best shark, possibly the best aquatic creature of all (I might have to flip a coin between it and octopus – they are incredible too) but, nothing quite strikes with the unprecented punch of nature as this pacific titan. (Credit: Abe Khao Lak CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Want to dive deeper into some aquatic shark content?
Our Introduction will give you the basics of shark biology, ecology and natural history.
#10 – The massive, magnificent megalodon – a prehistoric giant!
#9 – The beautiful and quick blue shark
#8 – Known for it’s spiral of jagged teeth, Helicoprion – the Buzzsaw shark!
#7 – The frilled shark, a mysterious living fossil with much to tell us about sharks past.
#6 – The Great White, Apex predator, whale scavenger, more intelligent than we thought.
#5 – The Megamouth Shark – One that tells us more about what we don’t know!
#4 – The Graceful Hammerhead family – Much overfished, and is one a veggie?
#3 – The aparently philosophical basking shark! – Happy just existing.
#2 – The longest living vetebrate on earth – The Greenland Shark

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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