The temperature in the sea varies dramatically between the hot tropics and the frozen poles. But do the ocean’s most famous predators only live in the warm parts, or do sharks like cold water?
The simple answer is that it depends on the species of shark. Some sharks are highly susceptible to the cold and can only survive in tropical temperatures.
In contrast, others live happily in much cooler water. There are even species that live in the freezing Arctic ocean (although not the Antarctic, which is too cold even for the hardiest sharks).
We’re going to look at the different sharks that prefer cold water, those that love warm water, and those that have adapted to exist in between.
We’ll see that in every case, there’s a temperature range that a particular shark species have evolved to thrive in and that they could ultimately die if the water was too cold or too warm.
What Water Temperature Do Sharks Prefer?
Although it’s broadly possible to say that there are probably more sharks living in tropical and temperate waters, the question “Do Sharks Like Warm or Cold Water?” can only be truly answered by talking about a specific species.
There are over 500 different types of sharks swimming in our oceans today, and they have evolved to exist in the temperatures found in almost every part of the sea.
The ocean covers 70.8% of the surface of Earth, so there’s plenty of saltwater for these different sharks to live in. In fact, the ability to spread themselves around the world has been essential for the survival of all the various shark species.
Imagine if sharks could only live in warm water and all 500 species needed to eat there. Amongst other problems, the food supply would run out very quickly!
So, through the millennia, different sharks have evolved to fill an ecological niche to live in various habitats, including those with warm, intermediate, and cold temperatures.
So, to answer “What Water Temperature Do Sharks Prefer?” we need to look at a specific shark or maybe a group of sharks.
But before we do that, it’s helpful to define the different zones of temperature that the world’s oceans are typically divided into. Specific shark species often have an optimal temperature range that crosses between these zones. However, they give us a guide to work with.
Ocean Temperature Zones
Generally, the oceans are divided into three zones that make it easier to understand the expected water temperatures you’ll find there.
Understanding that these ocean regions refer to the expected sea surface temperatures is essential. The deep ocean will be far cooler, even in temperate or tropical zones, and will usually stay the same cold temperature year-round.
Tropical – Where the water temperature is above at least 20°C / 68 °F for the entire year. Typically with a maximum of around 30°C / 86°F.
Temperate – Temperatures range between about 10°C / 50 °F and 20C / 68°F throughout the year.
Polar – Where temperatures are below 10°C / 50 °F year round.
Throughout the year, the location and size of each surface temperature region will change with the seasons. For example, tropical zones, and accordingly, the area (northerly or southerly) that the associated sharks can live in, will expand further from the equator towards the relevant pole as the weather gets warmer there in its summer months.
Shark migration patterns are often closely related to water temperature. Sharks will use expanding summer temperature zones to access food-rich areas that would be too cool for them to visit in the winter months.
Are Sharks Sensitive to Cold?
Yes, all sharks are sensitive to the cold and have a minimum temperature at which they can live.
The majority of sharks are cold-blooded animals (poikilothermic), so their internal body temperature matches their surroundings.
A few shark species, notably the shortfin mako, some thresher sharks, and the great white shark, are homeothermic with higher internal temperatures than the water around them. However, these sharks are still sensitive to the cold and will also have a lower limit at which they can survive.
As well as being sensitive to the cold, sharks are as susceptible, or even more so, to heat. Exposure to excessively warm water will cause the shark’s essential body systems to shut down.
The shark will be unable to obtain the oxygen it needs from the water and will quickly die.
Every shark has a temperature range that it has adapted to. So, water that is too cold for one species may be just right or even too warm for another.
Water temperature can also significantly affect the availability of food for the shark. Sharks, including the blue shark, have been observed to tolerate lower temperatures than usual for short periods due to the abundance of food in cold waters.
Blue sharks have even been tracked diving to depths of 400 meters / 1,312 feet where the water is only 8°C / 46°F to catch their favorite food before returning quickly to the surface to bask in much warmer water.
Sharks That Like Cold Water
Do sharks like cold water? Yes, several shark species have evolved to live successfully in cold water.
If we take cold water as the polar zones below 10°C / 50 °F year round, we’re looking at some unique sharks that have evolved specifically to live in such a harsh environment.
Most of these sharks are endotherms that have developed biological systems to raise their body temperature above that of the surrounding water.
Cold-water sharks may also include the rare deepwater sharks, which live in low temperatures all year round.
For example, the bottom temperature of the Mariana Trench is 1 to 4°C / 34 to 39°F. Although the very bottom might be a little cool, the frilled shark is known to live within the trench’s depths, preferring temperatures below 10°C / 50°F
Other deepwater and, accordingly, coldwater sharks would include the goblin shark, bluntnose sixgill, Pacific sleeper, and the Bahamas sawshark.
Unlike the other deepwater sharks that generate their own heat, the Pacific sleeper survives in the freezing depths by having an anti-freeze system inside its liver.
Instead of the usual squalene, which may solidify at low temperatures, the Pacific sleeper has diacylglycerol ethers and triacylglycerol, which maintain their fluidity in the cold.
These species have all adapted to living in cold water and thrive where others would quickly freeze to death.
For example, in common with other endotherms, the porbeagle traps and reuses the heat generated in its muscles and other organs using specialized blood vessels called retia mirabilia.
These function like an organic heat exchanger and significantly raise the shark’s body temperature to around 8 to 10°C / 14 to 18°F above the surrounding water.
The porbeagle even uses these blood vessels to keep its eyes and brain warm and keep them functioning optimally even when rapidly changing depth when the water can get a lot cooler very quickly.
This incredible system helps almost to eliminate heat loss from the body to the water, allowing these particular sharks to thrive in cold waters.
Are There Sharks in Really Cold Waters?
Yes, there are even sharks that can live in the extreme cold of the Arctic Circle.
However, the Greenland shark is undoubtedly the most famous for having an incredible tolerance to low temperatures.
Greenland sharks have an extremely slow metabolism and are estimated to live between 250 and 500 years, making them the longest-living vertebrate species.
Unlike most sharks in freezing water, these slow-moving sharks are cold-blooded. The ancient shark uses a natural antifreeze cocktail of high concentrations of urea and trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in its body to prevent its proteins from freezing as it swims underneath the ice.
What About Antarctica? Do Sharks Live There?
Antarctica is too cold for even the specially adapted sharks that can live in the Arctic.
There were sharks around 40 million years ago when the waters were much warmer, and with global warming dramatically raising the Antarctic temperature, sharks may be able to return to the waters in years to come.
This would be expected to have a dramatic effect on the ecology of the area.
Sharks That Like Warm Water
Warm water sharks are some of the most well-known, and the broadest range of species lives in these zones.
These sharks take advantage of the warm temperatures and abundant food supply in tropical areas to have higher metabolisms than their cold water relations allowing them to swim faster.
Nurse sharks are exclusively found in tropical regions and are known to have a high tolerance for unusually warm water.
Tiger sharks appear to prefer water at a reasonably precise 22°C / 71.6F and quickly suffer in temperatures higher than about 28C / 82.4F, which is among the reasons that they are not good aquarium inhabitants.
The Inbetweeners – Shark Species That Like Temperate Waters
While many sharks stick to cold or warm water, some inhabit the intermediate temperate zone and migrate back and forth to reproduce or follow food.
Temperate sharks are often larger sharks, including the great white and shortfin mako, who use their relative bulk to thrive in cooler conditions that smaller tropical sharks couldn’t survive in. They may also swim in tropical waters but go deeper where the water is still chilly.
Rather than having the biological “heating systems” that some endothermic sharks have, these sharks usually have a thicker layer of body fat to help keep themselves warm.
Great white sharks are unusual for their ability to live happily in a wide range of temperatures, and the most fearsome of all ocean predators can be found in waters ranging between 12 and 24°C / 54 and 75°F.
Like the cold water shark species, the great white uses specialized heat-exchanging blood vessels to maintain its core body temperature warmer than the surrounding water when necessary.
Incredibly to conserve energy, the shark can regulate this temperature control, and when high levels of activity aren’t required, it can cool to match the surroundings.
The blue shark also has a wide oceanic distribution and lives mainly where the water is between 12 and 20°C / 54 and 68°F, although, as we’ve seen, they can tolerate much cooler water.
Blue sharks are one of the most well-traveled in the ocean and will travel huge distances each year following their favorite foods, even to the Arctic.
Will Sharks Die if the Water Is Too Cold or Too Warm?
Yes, all sharks are sensitive to temperature and will die if the surrounding water is too cold or too hot for their particular biology.
Do Great White Sharks Like Cold Water?
Great white sharks prefer water between 12 and 24°C / 54 and 75°F, which gives them one of the broadest distribution ranges of any shark.
The main reason why great white sharks may be thought to prefer cold water is that their favorite foods typically live there.
Large, fat-rich animals like sea lions, seals, and walruses all tend to live in colder regions meaning great whites will congregate there.
Do Sharks Attack in Cold Water?
Sharks do attack in cold water. However, attacks involving humans are considerably rarer than in warmer water.
The main reason is simply that there are fewer people there. Activities like surfing and swimming all take place in much higher amounts in warm waters, so there is a much greater chance of an incident.
Also, shark concentrations tend to be higher in temperate and tropical waters.
However, sharks are no more or less interested in humans in warm versus cold water, and you should always be cautious of your behavior if you’re in any area known to have sharks.
For example, if you were to swim in a cold water area with high numbers of seals known to attract great whites, you could end up being an accidental meal!
Were There Sharks When the Titanic Sank?
It is unlikely that sharks were present at the site of the Titanic when it sank, as the water temperature (about −2°C / 28 °F) would have been too cold for almost all sharks.
You can check out our full investigation into the subject here for more information.
Do sharks like cold water? Yes, some do!
Sharks, including the Greenland shark, have evolved to swim in some of the very coldest parts of the ocean, including the Arctic.
All shark species have a preferred temperature range specific to the niche that they exist in.
Many shark species we are most familiar with live in tropical and temperate waters. However, others have developed the incredible ability to keep their bodies warmer than their surroundings. In doing so, they can take advantage of the food they find in the colder seas.
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.