Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus (Smith 1828)

A Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus, at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Source: FGBNMS / Eckert / NOAA. License: Public Domain

The mighty Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus, is the world's largest living fish. This gentle giant, with its chequerboard pattern of spots and stripes, feeds solely on zooplankton.

Video of a Whale Shark surrounded by Cobia at Flat Rock, North Stradbroke Island, Queensland, March 2017.

Video of a Whaleshark at Batu Katoka, Indonesia.

Video of a shoal of baitfish using a whale shark to protect them from voracious Yellowfin Tuna. Make sure you watch right to the end of the 3.5 minutes.

Cite this page as:
Bray, D.J. 2017, Rhincodon typus in Fishes of Australia, accessed 16 Jul 2019, http://fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/1980

Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus (Smith 1828)

More Info


Found worldwide in tropical and subtropical oceans.


Planktivores - feeding on zooplankton, including the eggs and larvae of fishes and invertebrates. Whale sharks are migratory, and often form seasonal aggregations close to shore when food is abundant.


Little is known of Whale Shark reproductive biology. Whale sharks are ovoviviparous, meaning that they give birth to live young that have hatched from their egg cases within the uterus of the female (Joung et al. 1996). One female whale shark carried more than 300 embryos in varying stages of development within her uterus. The embryos ranged from 42 cm total length (TL) embryos still in egg cases, to hatched embryos free-living in the uterus, measuring 58-64 cm TL. Very few small whale sharks have ever been seen, and the smallest to date is a pup, measuring 46 cm TL, caught on hook and line in 2009 near Donsol in the Philippines (Aca & Schmidt 2011).



Whale sharks are negatively buoyant meaning they naturally sink. When feeding, they glide gently down to feed on krill in deep water, thereby not expending much energy swimming. Meekan et al (2015) estimated that this behaviour, followed by a steep return to warmer surface waters, allows whale sharks to conserve up to 30% of the energy they would use if just swimming horizontally.


Rhincodon is from the Greek rhinos meaning "rasp", and odon meaning "tooth" ... as described by Smith, 1829: “Teeth small, slightly curved, placed in longitudinal rows, and altogether so disposed towards the anterior edges of jaws as to exhibit the resemblance of a rasp or file lying across each …” (The Etyfish Project)


Bray, D.J. 2017

Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus (Smith 1828)


Aca, E.Q. & J.V. Schmidt. 2011. Revised size limit for viability in the wild: neonatal and young of the year whale sharks identified in the Philippines. Asia Life Sciences 20(2): 361-367.

Anderson, D., Kobryn, H., Norman, B.,   Bejder, L., Tyne, J. & Loneragan, N.R. 2014. Spatial and temporal patterns of nature-based tourism interactions with whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 148: 109-116.   http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecss.2014.05.023

Andrzejaczek S, Meeuwig J, Rowat D, Pierce S, Davies T, Fisher R, Meekan M. 2016. The ecological connectivity of whale shark aggregations in the Indian Ocean: a photo-identification approach. Royal Society Open Science 3: 160455. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160455 Open access

Arzoumanian, Z., Holmberg, J. & Norman, B. 2005. An astronomical pattern‐matching algorithm for computer‐aided identification of whale sharks Rhincodon typus. Journal of Applied Ecology 42: 999-1011.

Borrell, A., Aguilar, A., Gazo, M., Kumarran, R.P. & Cardona, L. 2011. Stable isotope profiles in whale shark (Rhincodon typus) suggest segregation and dissimilarities in the diet depending on sex and size. Environmental Biology of Fishes 92: 559-567.

Bradshaw, CJA, BM Fitzpatrick, CC Steinberg, BW Brook, MG Meekan. 2008. Decline in whale shark size and abundance at Ningaloo Reef over the past decade: the world’s largest fish is getting smaller. Biological Conservation 141: 1894-1905. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2008.05.007

Bradshaw, C.J.A., H.F. Mollet & M.G. Meekan. 2007. Inferring population trends for the world’s largest fish from mark-recapture estimates of survival. Journal of Animal Ecology 76: 480-489.

Brooks, K., Rowat, D., Pierce, S.J., Jouannet, D. & Vely, M. 2010. Seeing spots: photo-identification as a regional tool for whale shark identification. Western Indian Ocean Journal of Marine Science 2: 185-194. 

Brunnschweiler, J.M. & Sims, D.W. 2011. Diel oscillations in whale shark vertical movements associated with meso-and bathypelagic diving. American Fisheries Society Symposium 76: 1-14.

Capietto, A., Escalle, L., Chavance, P., Dubroca, L., Delgado de Molina, A., Murua, H., Floch, L., Damiano, A., Rowat, D & Merigot, B. 2014. Mortality of marine megafauna induced by fisheries: Insights from the whale shark, the world’s largest fish. Biological Conservation 174: 147-151. 

Castro, A.L.F., Stewart, B.S., Wilson, S.G., Hueter, R.E., Meekan, M.G., Motta, P.J., Bowen, B.W. & Karl, S.A. 2007. Population genetic structure of Earth's largest fish, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Molecular Ecology 16: 5183-5192. 

Catlin, J. & Jones, R. 2010. Whale shark tourism at Ningaloo Marine Park: A longitudinal study of wildlife tourism. Tourism Management 31: 386-394.

Chang, W.B., M.Y. Leu & L.S. Fang. 1997. Embryos of the whale shark, Rhincodon typus: Early growth and size distribution. Copeia 1997: 444-446.

Colman, J. 1997. A review of the biology and ecology of the whale shark. Journal of Fish Biology 51: 1219-1234.

Compagno, L. 2001. Sharks of the World: An Annotated and Illustrated Catalogue of Shark Species Known to Date. Bullhead, mackerel and carpet sharks (Heterodontiformes, Lamniformes and Orectolobiformes). Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Davidson, L.N.K., Krawchuk, M.A. and Dulvy, N.K. 2016. Why have global shark and ray landings declined: improved management or overfishing? Fish and Fisheries 17(2): 438–458.

Davies, T.K., Stevens, G., Meekan, M.G., Struve, J. & Rowcliffe, J.M. 2012. Can citizen science monitor whale-shark aggregations? Investigating bias in mark – recapture modelling using identification photographs sourced from the public. Wildlife Research 39: 696-704.

Duffy, C.A.J. 2002. Distribution, seasonality, lengths and feeding behaviour of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) observed in New Zealand waters. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 36: 565-570.

Gleiss, A.C., Norman, B.N. & Wilson, R.P. 2011. Moved by that sinking feeling: variable diving geometry underlies movement strategies in whale sharks. Functional Ecology 25: 595-607. 

Gleiss, A.C., Wright, S., Liebsch, N., Wilson, R.P. & Norman, B. 2013. Contrasting diel patterns in vertical movement and locomotor activity of whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef. Marine Biology 160: 2981-2992.

Graham, R.T. & Roberts, C.M.2007. Assessing the size, growth rate and structure of a seasonal population of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus Smith 1828) using conventional tagging and photo identification. Fisheries Research 84: 71-80.

Holmberg J, Norman B, Arzoumanian Z. 2009. Estimating population size, structure, and residency time for whale sharks Rhincodon typus through collaborative photo-identification. Endangered Species Research 7, 39–53. doi:10.3354/esr00186 Open access

Hueter RE, Tyminski JP, de la Parra R 2013. Horizontal movements, migration patterns, and population structure of Whale Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and Northwestern Caribbean Sea. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71883. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071883 Open access

Hobbs, J-P.A., Frisch, A.J., Hamanaka, T., McDonald, C.A., Gilligan, J.J. & Neilson, J. 2009. Seasonal aggregation of juvenile whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) at Christmas Island, Indian Ocean. Coral Reefs 28: 577.

Holmberg, J., Norman, B. & Arzoumanian, Z. 2008. Robust, comparable population metrics through collaborative photo-monitoring of whale sharks Rhincodon typus. Ecological Applications 18: 222-233. 

Holmberg, J., Norman, B. & Arzoumanian, Z. 2009. Estimating population size, structure, and residency time for whale sharks Rhincodon typus through collaborative photo-identification. Endangered Species Research 7: 39-53.

Joung, S.J., C.T. Chen, E. Clark, S. Uchida & W.Y.P. Huang. 1996. The whale shark, Rhincodon typus, is a livebearer: 300 embryos found in one ‘megamamma’ supreme. Environmental Biology of Fishes 46: 219-223.

Mau, R. & Wilson, E. 2007. Industry trends and whale shark ecology based on tourism operator logbooks at Ningaloo Marine Park, pp. 45-52. In: Irvine, T.R. & Keesing, J.K. (eds) The First International Whale Shark Conference: Promoting International Collaboration in Whale Shark Conservation, Science and Management.

Meekan, MG, CJA Bradshaw, M Press, C McLean, A Richards, S Quasnichka, JG Taylor. 2006. Population size and structure of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Marine Ecology Progress Series 319: 275-285. doi:10.3354/meps319275

Meekan MG, Fuiman LA, Davis R, Berger Y & Thums M (2015) Swimming strategy and body plan of the world's largest fish: implications for foraging efficiency and thermoregulation. Frontiers in Marine Science 2: 64. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2015.00064 PDF Open access

Meekan, M.G., S.N. Jarman, C. McLean & M.B. Schultz 2009. DNA evidence of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) feeding on red crab (Gecarcoidea natalis) larvae at Christmas Island, Australia. Marine and Freshwater Research 60: 607-609.

Norman BM, Holmberg JA, Arzoumanian Z, Reynolds S, Wilson RP, Gleiss AC, Rob D, Pierce S, de la Parra R, Galvan B, Ramirez-Macias D, Robinson D, Fox S, Graham R, Rowat D, Potenski M, Levine M, McKinney JA, Hoffmayer E, Dove A, Hueter R, Ponzo A, Araujo G, Aca E, David D, Rees R, Duncan A, Rohner CA, Hearn A, Acuna D, Berumen ML, Vázquez A, Green J, Bach SS, Schmidt JV, Morgan DL. 2016. Understanding constellations: The use of ‘citizen science’ to elucidate the global biology of a threatened marine mega-vertebrate. Science Proceedings (The 4th International Whale Shark Conference) 2016: iwsc4.38 http://dx.doi.org/10.5339/qproc.2016.iwsc4.38

Norman BM, Reynolds S, Morgan DL. 2016. Does the whale shark aggregate along the Western Australian coastline beyond Ningaloo Reef? Pacific Conservation Biology 22, 72–80. doi:10.1071/PC15045 Abstract

Norman, B.M. & Stevens, J.D. 2007. Size and maturity status of the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. Fisheries Research 84: 81-86.

Pierce, S.J. & Norman, B. 2016. Rhincodon typus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T19488A2365291. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T19488A2365291.en. Downloaded on 26 September 2016.

Reynolds SD, Norman BM, Beger M, Franklin CE, Dwyer RG. 2017. Movement, distribution and marine reserve use by an endangered migratory giant. Diversity and Distributions 12 pp. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ddi.12618/full Open access

Rohner, C.A., Couturier, L.I.E., Richardson, A.J., Pierce, S.J., Prebble, C.E.M., Gibbons, M.J. & Nichols, P.D. 2013. Diet of whale sharks Rhincodon typus inferred from stomach content and signature fatty acid analyses. Marine Ecology Progress Series 493: 219-235. 

Rohner, C.A., Pierce, S.J., Marshall, A.D., Weeks, S.J., Bennett, M.B. & Richardson, A.J. 2013. Trends in sightings and environmental influences on a coastal aggregation of manta rays and whale sharks. Marine Ecology Progress Series 482: 153-168. 

Rohner, C.A., Richardson, A.J., Prebble, C.E.M., Marshall, A.D., Bennett, M.B., Weeks, S.J., Cliff, G., Wintner, S.P. & Pierce, S.J. 2015. Laser photogrammetry improves size and demographic estimates for whale sharks. PeerJ 3: e886.

Rohner, C.A., A.J. Richardson, A.D. Marshall, S.J. Weeks & S.J. Pierce. 2011. How large is the world's largest fish? Measuring whale sharks Rhincodon typus with laser photogrammetry. Journal of Fish Biology 78(1): 378–385.

Rowat, D. & Brooks, K.S. 2012. A review of the biology, fisheries and conservation of the whale shark Rhincodon typus. Journal of Fish Biology 80: 1019-1056.

Rowat, D., M.A. Gore, B.B. Baloch, Z. Islam, E. Ahmad, Q.M. Ali, R.M. Culloch, S. Hameed, S.A. Hasnain, B. Hussain, S. Kiani, J. Siddiqui, R.F. Ormond, N. Henn & M. Khan. 2008. New records of neonatal and juvenile whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) from the Indian Ocean. Environmental Biology of Fishes 82: 215-219.

Schmidt, J.V., C.-C. Chen, S.I. Sheikh, M.G. Meekan, B.N. Norman & S.-J. Joung. 2010. Paternity analysis in a litter of whale shark embryos. Endangered Species Research 12: 117-124.

Schmidt, J.V., Chen, C.C., Sheikh, S.I., Meekan, M.G., Norman, B.M. & Joung, S.J. 2010. Paternity analysis in a litter of whale shark embryos. Endangered Species Research 12: 117-124. 

Schmidt, J.V., Schmidt, C.L., Ozer, F., Ernst, R.E., Feldheim, K.A, Ashley, M.V. & Levine, M. 2009. Low genetic differentiation across three major ocean populations of the whale shark, Rhincodon typus. PloS ONE 4: e4988. 

Sequeira, A., Mellin, C., Rowat, D., Meekan, M.G. & Bradshaw, C.J.A. 2012. Ocean-scale prediction of whale shark distribution. Diversity and Distributions 18: 504-518. 

Sequeira, A.M.M., Mellin, C. & Floch, L. 2014. Inter-ocean asynchrony in whale shark occurrence patterns. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 450: 21-29. DOI: 10.1016/j/jembe.2013.10.019. 

Sequeira, A.M.M., Mellin, C., Delean, S., Meekan, M.G. & Bradshaw, C.J A. 2013a. Spatial and temporal predictions of inter-decadal trends in Indian Ocean whale sharks. Marine Ecology Progress Series 478: 185-195.

Sequeira, A.M.M., Mellin, C., Fordham, D.A., Meekan, M.G. & Bradshaw, C.J.A. 2014. Predicting current and future global distributions of whale sharks. Global Change Biology 20: 778-789.

Sequeira, A.M.M., Mellin, C., Meekan, M.G., Sims, D.W. & Bradshaw, C.J.A. 2013b. Inferred global connectivity of whale shark Rhincodon typus populations. Journal of Fish Biology 82: 367-389. 

Sleeman, J.C., Meekan, M.G., Wilson, S.G., Polovina, J.J., Stevens, J.D., Boggs, G.S. & Bradshaw, C.J.A. 2010. To go or not to go with the flow: Environmental influences on whale shark movement patterns. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 390: 84-98. 

Speed, C.W., Meekan, M.G., Rowat, D., Pierce, S.J., Marshall, A.D. & Bradshaw, C.J.A. 2008. Scarring patterns and relative mortality rates of Indian Ocean whale sharks. Journal of Fish Biology 72: 1488-1503.

Sleeman, JC, MG Meekan, SG Wilson, JJ Polovina, JD Stevens, GS Boggs, CJA Bradshaw. 2010. To go or not to go with the flow: environmental influences on whale shark movement patterns. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 390: 84-98. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2010.05.009

Sleeman, JC, MG Meekan, BM Fitzpatrick, CC Steinberg, R Ancel, CJA Bradshaw. 2010. Oceanographic and atmospheric processes influence the abundance of whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 382:77-81. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2009.10.015

Speed, CW, MG Meekan, CJA Bradshaw. 2007. Spot the match – wildlife photo-identification using information theory. Frontiers in Zoology 4: 2. doi:10.1186/1742-9994-4-2

Speed, CW, MG Meekan, D Rowat, S Pierce, AD Marshall, CJA Bradshaw. 2008. Scarring patterns and relative mortality rates of Indian Ocean whale sharks. Journal of Fish Biology 72: 1488-1503. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8649.2008.01810.x

Speed, CW, MG Meekan, B Russell, CJA Bradshaw. 2008. Recent whale shark (Rhincodon typus) beach strandings in Australia. Marine Biodiversity Records 2: e15. doi:10.1017/S1755267208000158

Stevens, J.D. 2007. Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) biology and ecology: A review of the primary literature. Fisheries Research 84: 4-9.

Taylor, J.G. 1996. Seasonal occurrence, distribution and movements of the whale shark, Rhincodon typus, at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Marine and Freshwater Research 47: 637-642.

Vignaud, T.M., Maynard, J.A, Leblois, R., Meekan, M.G., Vázquez-Juárez, R., Ramírez-Macías, D., Pierce, S.J., Rowat, D., Berumen, M.L., Beeravolu, C., Baksay, S. & Planes, S. 2014. Genetic structure of populations of whale sharks among ocean basins and evidence for their historic rise and recent decline. Molecular Ecology 23: 2590-2601.

White, W.T. & Cavanagh, R.D. 2007. Whale shark landings in Indonesian artisanal shark and ray fisheries. Fisheries Research 84: 128-131.

Wilson, S.G., Taylor, J.G. & Pearce, A.F. 2001. The seasonal aggregation of whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia: currents, migrations and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Environmental Biology of Fishes 61: 1-11.

Wolfson, F.H. 1983. Records of 7 juveniles of the whale shark, Rhincodon typus. Journal of Fish Biology 22: 647-655.

Yopak K, Frank L. 2009. Brain size and brain organization of the whale shark, Rhincodon typus, using magnetic resonance imaging. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 74(2): 121-142. DOI: 10.1159/000235962 Abstract

Quick Facts

CAAB Code:37014001

Conservation:IUCN Endangered; EPBC Migratory & Vulnerable; CITES Listed

Depth:0-1000+ m


Max Size:20 m; 34 tonne

Species Maps

CAAB distribution map