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15 Stunning Photos of Whale Sharks in the Wild

These amazing underwater creatures will leave you speechless.

Diver and Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), the biggest fish in the world, Oslob, Cebu, PhilippinesSeaTops/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

The biggest fish

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Their name is a little confusing, but they are actually sharks, not whales. However, these sharks act more like whales when it comes to their feeding patterns and size. If you think whale sharks are interesting, you’ll also want to read up on these other fascinating facts about sharks.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), under water surface, largest fish of the world, Tan-Awan, Cebu, PhilippinesSeaTops/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

Unbelievably long

On average, whale sharks grow up to around 18 to 33 feet long. Some of the largest have grown to 40 feet long. They weigh around 20.6 tons—that’s about the size of a school bus to give you a visual.

Woman swimming side by side with a huge whale shark in the clear blue ocean. David Evison/Shutterstock

Unique shape

Whale sharks have flattened heads with a blunt snout. They have whisker-like sensory organs around their nostrils known as short nasal barbells. Their mouths are about five feet wide and similar to what you would expect in your average shark, they have over 300 teeth. Since they are filter feeders, they don’t use their teeth to eat. Whale sharks also make our list of the weirdest, wildest sharks in the world.

Feeding Whale shark (Rhincodon typus), Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, Australia, Indian OceanimageBROKER/Shutterstock

All different spots

Whale sharks have gray to brown backs and sides and white undersides. Whale sharks also have white spots and pale stripes all down their bodies. Similar to human fingerprints and giraffe spots, each whale shark has its own unique pattern of spots and stripes.

Whale Shark SwimmingJacqueline Bodine/Shutterstock

Filter feeders

Unlike great whites and other sharks, whale sharks are very gentle when it comes to their eating patterns—just one of the reasons some sharks are so misunderstood. They are known as filter feeders, which means they open their enormous mouths, let all the water and food come in, and then their bodies filter out the food and release the water and debris back into the ocean. They enjoy plankton the most but will also feed on other tiny animals, plants, and fish that are around.

Swimming with whale sharksNikki To/Shutterstock

Warm waters

Whale sharks like warm waters so they habituate in tropical seas. Every spring they migrate to the central west coast of Australia because of the large supply of plankton. They are docile fish so brave people will swim alongside them. The majority of whale sharks live in the Pacific and Indian oceans but some do live in the Atlantic. Check out these amazing trivia facts about the world’s oceans.

Whale Shark UnderwaterLindsey Lu/Shutterstock

Gathering to feed

They are solitary creatures but will share feeding grounds with other whale sharks. They will gather on the surface of the water in coastal feeding areas to feed on seasonal fish or algae blooms.

A large Whale Shark swims past a pair of SCUBA divers on a tropical coral reefRichard Whitcombe/Shutterstock

Long migrations

Whale sharks have very long migrations to locations where food is abundant. Some swim across entire oceans. They are able to do this because of their large size. Here’s where you’ll find the most shark-infested waters in the world.

people snorkeling with whale sharks, Aerial view.Leonardo Gonzalez/Shutterstock

Swimming with whale sharks

If you want to interact with these gentle giants in their natural habitat some of the best places to travel to are western Australia, the Philippines, the Maldives, Thailand, Mozambique, Belize, Honduras, and parts of Mexico. Peak whale shark season happens at different times of the year in these various locations so make sure to do some research before booking your trip.

Swimming with whale sharksNikki To/Shutterstock

Getting close

If you do ever get the once in a lifetime opportunity to swim with a whale shark, remember that although they are gentle, you’re invading their home. Don’t get to close and refrain from using flash photography.

Scuba diver and Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus), largest fish in the world, Maldives, Indian oceanHelmut Corneli/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

Reproduction

Female whale sharks produce eggs and hold them inside their abdomen until they hatch and she gives live birth. They give birth to hundreds of small babies, unlike other sharks that have a small number of much larger babies.

Whale Shark with mouth openRich Carey/Shutterstock

Danger in some areas of the world

Although illegal, some whale sharks are still caught, and their meat and fins are sold. Like other slow-moving animals, they also occasionally get caught in fisherman’s gear that is set up to catch other animals—but here’s why we really need sharks in our oceans.

Fisherman feeding whale shark shrimp from his canoeSteve De Neef/Solent News/Shutterstock

Shrimp snack

Whale sharks spend some of their time at the surface of the water to feed and they aren’t afraid to get close to the shore and to boats. Here, a fisherman in the Philippines feeds a whale shark shrimp off of his canoe. You’ve probably never heard of these super weird deep-sea creatures.

Swimming with whale sharksRazor527/Shutterstock

Saving the population

Scientists do believe that whale sharks are vulnerable to extinction, but because of the tourism industry around viewing them in the wild, many of them are being protected.

Swimming with whale sharksJames D Morgan/Shutterstock

Always being studied

The World Wildlife Foundation continues to study the habits of these amazing sharks. They’re able to learn more about their annual habits by tracking individual whale sharks based off of their unique pattern of spots and stripes. They have identified 458 whale sharks in the Philippines since 2007. If the size of these sharks blew your mind, check out some of the other biggest living animals in the world.

Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Assistant Digital Managing Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When she’s not writing for rd.com or keeping the 650+ pieces of content our team produces every month organized, she likes watching HGTV, going on Target runs, and searching through Instagram to find new corgi accounts to follow.