Have you heard about the bull shark in the Ohio River?
Like us, you probably think that the idea is absurd. After all, the waters flow nearly 2,000 miles in total until they reach the ocean at the Gulf of Mexico.
Surely that is too far for even the powerful and adaptable bull shark to swim?
However, there have indeed been stories of bull sharks in Ohio.
We’re going to consider the possibilities of a bull shark reaching the Ohio by considering the range of difficulties the shark would have to overcome.
We’ll see that all the stories have been proven false.
The one thing we can say for sure is that the likelihood of you ever seeing the dorsal fin of a bull shark in the Ohio River is so incredibly unlikely as to be more or less unbelievable.
Are There Bull Sharks in Ohio?
The bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) is the only shark species found in North America that can live in both saltwater and freshwater.
Astonishingly there have been stories claiming that these dangerous sharks have been sighted in the Ohio River.
But is this possible?
First off, although they are not common, bull sharks live in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Ohio River eventually reaches the ocean.
Therefore, theoretically, it could be possible that one or more of these fantastic animals has found their way up the Mississippi and into the Ohio.
But is it likely? Let’s consider the obstacles the bull shark would need to overcome.
The Ohio River runs 981 miles (1,579 km) from western Pennsylvania until it joins the Lower Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. After that, it flows another 1,000 miles until the ocean at the Gulf of Mexico.
So, the vast distance from the ocean suggests that the idea of bull sharks frequently making it to the Ohio River is incredibly unlikely.
Bull sharks like warm water of 68 °F (20 °C).
We can rule out bull sharks living in the Ohio River year round – it’s too cold!
In Pittsburgh, the river frequently freezes, and while it’s not common, the Ohio has frozen as far south as Louisville.
Even the southernmost location of the river at Cairo, where it joins the Mississippi, has a water temperature of around 36 °F (2.5 °C) during the coldest month of February.
However, the water is a lot warmer for about five months in summer.
From the end of May to the end of October, the water is sufficiently warm that the bull shark could possibly live in the Ohio river from a temperature point of view.
Much of the Ohio River may be too shallow for anything other than juvenile bull sharks.
While the river can be pretty wide, the average depth from the start down to Cincinnati is about 15 feet (5 m), and it can be even shallower.
The river reaches an impressive 168 feet (51 m) deep on the western side of Louisville.
However, the depth of the river joins the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois is back to about 19 feet (6 m).
So, the typical depth is too shallow for an adult bull shark, and it would have to traverse a relatively shallow section to enter from the Mississippi.
Many artificial obstacles could prevent a bull shark from traveling far up the River.
For example, the McAlpine Locks and Dam at the Falls of Ohio northwest of Louisville would probably be impossible for a shark to pass.
The Ohio is dubious as the most polluted river in America.
High levels of industrial toxins will have affected how much food there would be to attract a bull shark to make the incredibly long swim.
Ohio River Bull Shark Sightings and Stories
Having suggested that bull sharks in the Ohio River are highly unlikely thanks to the distance, limiting water temperature, depth, obstructions, and pollution, what about the reported sightings?
First off, bull sharks are known to have swum in the Mississippi. However, only two specimens were confirmed in the Mississippi during the 20th century.
Fishermen caught one bull shark in the Mississippi at Alton, Illinois, in 1937. Another was discovered dead in 1995, caught in the water intake at the Rush Island Power Station.
It has even been suggested that the Alton bull shark was purchased at a local fish market and then displayed by the fishermen as a fake capture.
However, we couldn’t find any scientifically confirmed reports of bull sharks in the Ohio River.
2010, Olmsted, Illinois – Misidentification
A claimed two-foot bull shark was discovered dead on a boat ramp. However, experts suggested the shark had been dumped there and that, on inspection, it was a spiny dogfish that cannot live in freshwater.
2014, Manchester, Ohio – Misidentification
A juvenile bull shark was reportedly found washed up at the Island Creek campground showing signs that a boat’s propeller had killed it.
However, Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials said the remains were of a saltwater Atlantic sharpnose shark.
The official said that “the shark was likely caught somewhere else and discarded in the Ohio River.”
2015 Ohio Bull Shark – Fake News
A social media post from July 6, 2015, claimed to show a bull shark caught in the Ohio River.
However, the fact-checking website Snopes has proven that the photo was taken in Australia.
To summarize, we could not find any evidence of bull sharks ever being found in the Ohio River.
Are There Any Sharks in Ohio?
No, there have not been any confirmed sharks found in the Ohio river.
All the reported sightings we found were believed by experts to have been dumped there, having been caught elsewhere.
However, it’s not impossible to completely rule out bull sharks as they have rarely been discovered nearby in the Mississippi.
What About the Shark Head Found in the Ohio River?
In 2021 a mysterious shark head was shown on Facebook washed up along a river in Ohio.
However, it was subsequently discovered that the head had been purchased in a nearby fish market and, bizarrely, thrown in the river to feed fish.
Has There Ever Been a Shark Caught in the Ohio River?
No, there are no confirmed reports of anyone catching a shark in the Ohio River.
In 1980, two fishermen claimed to have caught a baby shark near Portsmouth. However, an Ohio wildlife official said it was probably a sturgeon.
Have There Been Any Shark Attacks in Ohio?
No, there has never been a shark attack on the Ohio River.
In all likelihood, there are no bull sharks in the Ohio River.
There’s no evidence that any of the sharks found in the Ohio have been anything other than unfortunate specimens dumped there.
Although scientists believe that bull sharks have made it into the Mississippi river from the ocean, sightings in the upper area are very rare, with only two made in the twentieth century.
With the highest industrial pollution of any river in the United States, there’s probably far worse than one of the most dangerous sharks to be concerned when swimming within the 981 miles of flowing waters of the Ohio!
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.