Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus (Smith 1828)

A Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus, on Ningaloo Reef, off Western Australia, April 2007. Source: Erik Schlogl / iNaturalist.org. License: CC by Attribution-NonCommercial

The mighty Whale Shark is the world's largest living fish. This gentle giant, with its chequer-board pattern of spots and stripes, feeds solely on plankton. Whale Shark watching on Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, is an important tourism industry - and individual Whale Sharks can be identified by their body patterns.

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. 2021, Rhincodon typus in Fishes of Australia, accessed 29 May 2024, https://fishesofaustralia.net.au/home/species/1980

Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus (Smith 1828)

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In Australia, Whale Sharks occur mainly off northern Australia, with patchy records from other states. On the west coast, the most southerly record is Albany in south Western Australia. On the east coast, a dead juvenile washed ashore near Green Cape, New South Wales in 2021. The species also occurs at Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean, and the Lord Howe Province in the Tasman Sea. Elsewhere the species is found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters, in both coastal and oceanic habitats.
Although Whale Sharks usually inhabit epipelagic waters (= above 200m), tagging studies have shown that they can dive to at least 1928 m - possibly to feed on mesopelagic and bathypelagic prey.


Vertebrae 174 (82 precaudal); Head length about 24% of TL.Characterised by an extremely wide terminal mouth, very long gill slits, several longitudinal raised ridges along the full length of the body, a large lunate caudal fin with the upper lobe extending almost vertically.


While the IUCN reports the maximum length as 20 m TL, the species usually attains a maximum length of about 12 metres.


Dark grey to brownish dorsally, with many white to yellow spots and some vertical pale stripes, spots smallest and most numerous anteriorly, extending onto fins; stripes onto 1st dorsal fin; underside white to yellow; reportedly, back and sides occasionally greenish-grey, ventral surface reddish-white.


Planktivore - feeds by filtering zooplankton from the water column. This versatile suction filter-feeder consumes mainly plankton filtered from the water by an internal "sieve" formed from the mesh-like gill rakers.

Whale sharks are migratory, and often form seasonal aggregations close to shore when food is abundant. These aggregations may coincide with fish spawning events and zooplankton blooms.


Little is known of Whale Shark reproductive biology. They 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).


The species is fished commercially in parts of its range.
Largest of living fishes, but harmless to humans; highly migratory; versatile suction filter-feeder feeding mainly on plankton filtered from by internal "sieve" formed from mesh-like gill rakers; pregnant female observed in Taiwan with about 300 embryos; size at birth 55–64 cm; males mature by 7.0 m, females at 10.6 m; rated vulnerable by IUCN (Red List for Threatened Animals); exploited by harpoon fisheries elsewhere but not caught locally.


The Whale Shark has been assessed by the IUCN as Endangered.


Whale sharks are negatively buoyant and therefore 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 specific name is from the Latin typus, and refers to the type species of the genus.

Species Citation

Rhincodon typus Smith 1828, South African Commercial Advertiser 3(145): 2. Type locality: Table Bay, South Africa, southeastern Atlantic.


Bray, D.J. 2021


Atlas of Living Australia

Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus (Smith 1828)


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Quick Facts

CAAB Code:37014001

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

Depth:0-1928 m


Max Size:12 metres TL

Species Image Gallery

Species Maps

CAAB distribution map