If you’re a fish, shortfin mako sharks are terrifying creatures, but to us humans, they are arguably the most beautiful shark species to grace our oceans.
With its metallic coloration and sleek build, the shortfin mako shark is a graceful and eye-catching predator. It’s famed for its ability to race through the waters at eye-watering speeds, catching cold-blooded fish completely off-guard.
Unless you go looking for one, your chances of coming eye-to-eye with a shortfin mako are extremely limited, as they prefer the deep, open waters of the pelagic zone to the coastal areas that humans frequent.
What do Mako Sharks Look Like?
With their sleek, muscular bodies, shortfin mako sharks resemble torpedoes and travel almost as fast. They have long, pointy snouts and long gill slits that extend partly onto the top of the head.
The dorsal side of the shortfin mako shark is usually blue but can range from “metallic indigo to bluish-black” in certain individuals. Its underbelly is lighter, appearing either silver-grey or white.
The distinction between these two colors is more apparent than in other sharks, but that doesn’t stop the shortfin mako from being mistaken for a juvenile great white.
Unfortunately, the best way to distinguish a mako shark from a great white is by its teeth, which you’re unlikely to inspect! The mako shark has slender teeth that lack the serrated edges of the great white.
One of the most distinguishing features of the shortfin mako shark is, unsurprisingly, its short fins.
Unlike its cousin, the longfin mako shark, the short fin’s pectoral fins are “rather narrow-tipped and less than 70% of head length.”
Another notable feature of the shortfin mako shark is its prominent eye, much larger than other species.
Your chances of seeing a shortfin mako shark in the wild are limited as these open-water specialists rarely come close to shore.
Mako Shark Taxonomy
There are only two types of mako sharks still in existence, the shortfin and the longfin. Both belong to the family of mackerel sharks, which includes common sharks like the great white and more unusual ones like the goblin shark.
Mackerel sharks, also known as Lamnidae, are fast, predatory sharks that generally prefer colder waters.
All mackerel sharks have cartilaginous skeletons, which means they belong to the Chondrichthyes class.
Mako sharks are closely related to the great white and are believed to be the closest living relatives of the extinct giant, the Megalodon. Like the Megalodon, the shortfin mako shark has dagger-like teeth with few serrations, unlike the great whites, which are heavily serrated.
Both shortfin mako sharks and Megalodons are thought to have descended from the now-extinct broad-toothed mako shark that “lived during the Miocene epoch from 23 to 5 million years ago.”
Also known as the bonito and blue pointer shark, the mako shark goes by the scientific name Isurus oxyrinchus. Oxyrinchus refers to the mako shark’s pointed snout, while Isurus indicates its familial association.
Mako Shark Characteristics
The brilliant metallic blue of the mako shark is one of its most distinguishing characteristics, along with its speed. The shortfin mako is the fastest known shark species, capable of traveling at speeds of up to 70kph.
The mako shark’s streamlined body usually measures 6 to 10 feet long, making it a medium-sized shark.
As the mako shark rarely approaches the shore, it has limited opportunities for human interactions. It’s most commonly encountered by deep-sea anglers who watch in wonder as it leaps up to 29 feet out of the water.
Mako sharks may be smaller than great whites, but those who’ve come into close contact with them say they’re even harder to handle.
Keith Poe has been tagging sharks since the mid-1990s and says mako sharks “are much more formidable than great whites.”
Once great whites have expended most of their energy, they become comparatively easier to handle, while mako sharks “will hold a lot of energy back.” They analyze the situation first “and then go ballistic when they think it’s the right moment to get away.”
Another curious characteristic of the shortfin mako shark is that, once dead, its brilliant coloration fades away to a uniform grayish brown.
Mako Shark Life Cycle
Mako sharks grow slowly, with the females only reaching sexual maturity at around 18 years. Male mako sharks are more precocious and sexually mature by age 8.
This slow growth and a long gestation period make the shortfin mako shark “extremely vulnerable to practices like overfishing.”
Mako sharks mate via internal fertilization, after which the female is pregnant for up to 18 months.
During their time in the uterus, the young mako shark pups feed on a yolk sac until they hatch, feeding on unfertilized eggs and each other!
Yes, mako sharks start hunting before they’re even born, preying on “lesser-developed fetuses” in a practice known as omophagy. This is not common behavior amongst sharks but is practiced by some other species, including the sand tiger shark.
After her lengthy pregnancy, the female mako shark gives birth to a small litter of pups, averaging between 8 and 10. Occasionally, as many as 18 pups may survive the gestation period, but this is unusual.
Shortfin mako sharks measure approximately two feet long at birth and are distinguishable by a “clear blackish stain on the tip of the snout.”
Even though it takes female mako sharks 18 years to reach sexual maturity, they only live for between 28 to 35 years, limiting their ability to reproduce.
To make things even more complicated, scientists also believe that female mako sharks take a break after each pregnancy, only mating again 18 months after giving birth.
There is still much to learn about the mako shark’s life cycle, but research has been stunted since female mako sharks “purposefully abort their embryos” when caught.
Where do Mako Sharks Live?
Like their long-finned cousins, shortfin Mako sharks tend to steer away from coastal waters, embracing the freedom of the open water.
As a pelagic species, it spends much of its time in the upper waters of the open sea.
Juvenile shortfin mako sharks tend to stick to shallower waters than their adult counterparts. Researchers found that juveniles living off the west coast of the US “spent 90% of their time in the 68-70°F (20-21°C) mixed-water layer just above the thermocline.”
Adult mako sharks, on the other hand, will spend more time in deeper waters, “reaching depths greater than 1 300 ft (400 m).”
Although mako sharks enjoy deep, open water, they don’t particularly like the cold and tend to stay in tropical and warm temperate seas, although they have a worldwide distribution.
Mako sharks are highly migratory, traveling up to “12,000 miles in a year.” Despite that, they regularly return to the productive waters off the Southern California coast, leading scientists to believe this is “an important feeding and nursery area for the species.”
Adult shortfin mako sharks appear to form loose congregations according to gender. One study found that off the coast of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, “only females were taken offshore while males were only taken inshore.”
Mako Shark Behavior
Short-fin mako sharks are extremely athletic creatures that cut through the water faster than any other shark species. Its high-speed pursuits are only possible because its endothermic abilities mean it can heat its body to “4–7°C warmer than the surrounding water.”
Another characteristic of the mako shark is its tendency to leap from the water when in pursuit of high-speed prey or when hooked by an angler.
These leaps are not fully understood, but scientists suspect they could be used to remove parasites. It’s also possible that the mako shark achieves such high speeds while pursuing prey that they naturally jettison themselves out of the water at the end of that pursuit.
Mako sharks are fast and aggressive but rarely attack humans. There have been numerous instances of mako sharks attacking boats seemingly to protect their prey.
When a shortfin mako shark attacks, it swims in a distinctive “figure-eight pattern with its mouth open” but travels at such speeds that it’s hard to avoid.
Most attacks attributed to mako sharks have been the result of mistaken identity, although there have been two serious attacks in the Red Sea this year, the latest of which proved fatal.
What do Mako Sharks Eat?
The mako shark is a solitary hunter and aggressive predator that feeds close to the top of the food chain.
It primarily preys on fast-moving bony fish, like mackerels, tuna, and swordfish. shortfin mako sharks aren’t particularly selective about what they eat and will consume seabirds and marine mammals quite happily.
The diet of mako sharks varies according to their location. Those living off the coast of Australia seem to prefer teleosts, or ray-finned fish, while those living off the Northeast coast of the US target bluefish.
Shortfin mako sharks on the east coast of South Africa seem to have developed a taste for elasmobranchs, including other sharks, rays, and skates.
Smaller individuals appear to avoid marine mammals, perhaps because their teeth aren’t suited for dismembering larger prey. Scientists suspect that larger individuals, over 10 feet long, may predate mammals because their “broadly triangular, flattened upper teeth” make them more viable.
The shortfin mako is an energetic hunter that burns a lot of energy as it pursues its prey at lightning-fast speeds. As a result, it needs to eat around 3% of its body weight daily. For a 150-kg shark, that equates to around 4.5 pounds of fish a day!
What Hunts Mako Sharks?
Mako sharks might be fast and aggressive, but that doesn’t stop them from falling prey to the ocean’s apex predators.
Orcas will take on virtually anything, including great white sharks and blue whales, so the shortfin mako is a comparatively easy meal, even though it swims so fast.
Orcas were first seen preying on shortfin mako sharks off the coast of New Zealand in 2000, and scientists believe they could be an “important prey for New Zealand killer whales.”
Elsewhere in the world, mako sharks live a mostly peaceful existence, until they cross paths with man. These high-speed sharks “have long been esteemed as prized game fish along the East Coast of the U.S.”
The commercial fishing industry has also shown some interest in the shortfin mako shark, hunting them for restaurant catch, although this practice is now restricted.
At the end of last year, 50 countries agreed to end the overfishing of the mako shark immediately.
A ban on the endangered North Atlantic shortfin makos was also introduced, which scientists hope will help reverse the decline and rebuild the population to a sustainable level.
Before this, “as many as “1 million shortfin mako sharks” were caught and killed every year,” leaving the North Atlantic population in ruins.
Everything about the shortfin mako shark was designed to make it an efficient hunter, from its high-speed athleticism to its knifelike teeth. Fortunately, humans don’t generally feature on its menu, and there have only been a handful of shortfin mako shark attacks.
The shortfin mako can reach speeds of up to 50kph, making it the fastest shark in the ocean. Despite that ability, it’s still preyed upon by orcas, which use “a combination of superior brain power and brute force” to overpower its high-speed prey.
shortfin mako sharks grow slowly, mature late, and have a long gestation period. These characteristics make the species particularly vulnerable to overfishing, and the global population is currently endangered.
It would be sad to see this powerful predator eradicated from our oceans, so let’s hope the current restrictions on overfishing will reverse some of the damage we’ve done and allow the species to recover.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.