It may not be as big or as deep as the Pacific Ocean, but the Atlantic provides a diverse habitat for all types of marine life.
At 106.5 million square kilometers, it’s one of the largest ocean habitats in the world, encompassing subtropical waters and vast areas of the deep ocean where strange creatures like the Deep-sea dragonfish proliferate.
Are there any Sharks in the Atlantic Ocean?
The Atlantic Ocean is home to around 50 of the world’s 500 species of shark.
Nearly all of these enter coastal waters at some point during their lives, although many are open ocean dwellers that spend most of their time in deep waters.
There’s a great diversity of Atlantic Ocean sharks, from the tiny spined pygmy shark to the giant filter feeder, the whale shark.
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During the summer months, species like the smooth dogfish, sandbar, and sand tiger sharks move closer to shore, while the pelagic species like the blue shark roam the open waters.
Is the Atlantic Ocean Shark Infested?
The Atlantic Ocean may have the most sharks, but it’s not commonly considered shark-infested.
However, the higher frequency of shark attacks in the Pacific and Indian Oceans has given them a much deadlier reputation than the Atlantic. Reputation aside, statistics suggest that the Atlantic Ocean is far more shark-infested than the Pacific.
For example, in 2018, the International Shark Attack File at Florida Museum recorded more “shark-human incidents” in the Atlantic Ocean than the Pacific.
The ratio of 27 attacks in the Atlantic compared to just four in the Pacific led National Geographic to investigate further.
One contributing factor is the water temperature. Warmer waters pushed in by the Gulf Stream and other currents draw baitfish close to shore, and the sharks soon follow.
The much larger white shark is a different kettle of fish. Its rebounding population is thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which brought back their favorite prey – the seal.
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The sheer number of sharks in the Atlantic ocean makes attacks more likely, especially when so many are commonly found in shallower waters where they’re more likely to encounter humans.
With National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now managing some 43 different species of sharks along the Eastern seaboard, the number of sharks in the area grows even further.
In addition, several shark populations are bouncing back from near-extinction, and those species will be among those we explore today.
Don’t worry; we won’t ignore the strangest or most common shark species either!
12 Types of Sharks in the Atlantic Ocean
#1 Blacktip Shark
Blacktip sharks frequent shallow coastal waters where they frequently encounter humans. Although normally quite wary of humans, blacktip sharks have been responsible for 28 attacks since the 1950s.
Blacktips will leap from the water and rotate several times during their boisterous hunting expeditions before splashing back down.
The blacktip reaches such high speeds when storming schools of small fish that “its momentum launches it into air.”
Another unusual characteristic of the blacktip is that it can impregnate itself in a process known as parthenogenesis.
DNA evidence revealed that, in 2008, a female blacktip shark “fertilized her own egg without mating with a male shark.”
It’s not known how common this behavior is, but it’s not unique to the blacktip. Tiger sharks and bonnetheads can also perform “virgin births.”
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#2 Sandbar Shark
The sandbar shark is one of the most commonly found in the Western Atlantic region, from Cape Cod to Argentina.
It is also the most common shark in Chesapeake Bay, which “is one of the most important sandbar shark nursery areas on the East Coast.”
Sandbar juveniles leave the nursery after between 9 and 10 months, after which they form schools that migrate to deeper waters.
Even as adults, sandbar sharks remain close to shore, however, and are often found in river mouths, harbors, and bays where they opportunistically prey on smaller sharks, bony fish, and crustaceans.
#3 Spiny Dogfish Shark
While harmless to humans, to its prey, the small spiny dogfish packs a deadly punch. It’s a fearsome predator with a strong jaw and venomous spines in front of each pectoral fin.
Often hunting in packs, this tiny shark has a reputation for having a voracious appetite. Commercial fishing operations have seen them “biting through nets to get at fishes, releasing many of them.”
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Once targeted for the European fish and chip market, the Atlantic’s population of spiny dogfish shark declined dramatically in the 1990s.
Conservation and population management strategies have helped them rebound and it’s now the most common shark found in the Atlantic Ocean.
#4 Great White Shark
Once rare in the North Atlantic, the white shark is now relatively common along the East Coast. Its resurgence is primarily due to the increasing seal populations rebounded under federal protection.
The online shark tracker, OCEARCH, frequently shows tagged great white sharks pinging off the Eastern seaboard. As I’m writing, great whites all along the coast, from Rhode Island to Jacksonville.
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Extensive research along the coast has given scientists new insights into this species of Atlantic sharks. OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer believes it’s “now the most comprehensively understood white shark population in the world.”
Fischer hopes the information OCEARCH gathers can be used to assess the impacts of climate change and “how sharks and other marine life are affected by warming waters.”
#5 Frilled Shark
The frilled shark isn’t a common sight on the East Coast or anywhere else close to the water’s surface.
This unusual species differs from most Atlantic sharks in that its preferred ocean habitat is so deep that it rarely encounters humans.
Inhabiting depths of between 390 and 4,200 feet, the frilled shark looks more like an eel than a shark.
Believed to be one of the oldest, most prehistoric forms of marine life, the frilled shark shares many of the characteristics of the oldest shark species.
Feeding primarily on squid, the frilled shark grows up to 7 feet long and lives for up to 25 years. Its gestation period is unknown but is believed to be even longer than that of the spiny dogfish.
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If shark experts are right, the frilled shark’s three-and-a-half-year-long pregnancy would make it “the longest gestation of any vertebrate.”
#6 Spined Pygmy Shark
Spined pygmy sharks don’t travel huge distances, but they are migratory species. Rather than moving through the ocean horizontally, however, these tiny sharks follow their prey in vertical patterns.
Known as diel vertical migrators, spined pygmy sharks lives in deep waters of up to 6,500 feet but migrates to mid-depth waters to hunt at night.
Rarely seen by humans, these tenacious little sharks only grow to around 9 inches long and yet, are thought to be one of the most abundant shark species in the world’s oceans. Preying on shrimp and small fish, the spined pygmy shark is one of several with bioluminescent qualities.
The stomach of the spined pygmy shark glows in the dark, luring in prey and camouflaging itself against potential predators.
#7 Hammerhead Sharks
With their strangely shaped heads, the nine species of hammerheads are easily distinguishable from other sharks.
These shovel-shaped heads, known as cephalofoils, enable them to cover more of the seafloor as they swim, boosting their chances of finding prey.
Within the cephalofoil is a network of electroreceptors that help the hammerhead locate its prey along with the widely-spaced eyes.
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Hammerheads use shallow coastal waters as occasional feeding grounds, hunting smaller fish and other sharks, including blacktips. They have a varied diet and adapt their hunting techniques accordingly.
When they hunt stingrays, they pin them to the seafloor until they weaken and can be safely devoured.
#8 Sand Tiger Sharks
This formidable-looking shark species migrates to New England waters every year, arriving in June and then leaving again in the Fall.
Despite having “hundreds of teeth in multiple rows,” this species of shark is one of the most docile.
The commercial fishing industry targeted sand tigers during the early 1900s. Due to its late maturity and slow reproductive rate, the species has struggled to recover from that population slump.
Fortunately, conservationists and other agencies responded to the problem quickly and enacted management measures in 1997 and again in 2009.
Not only has the population recovered in areas like New England, but sand tigers have expanded their territory into previously unoccupied areas north of Cape Cod.
#9 Lemon Sharks
Being nocturnal hunters, lemon sharks rely on electroreceptors to detect their natural prey, just as hammerheads do.
Unlike many species of sharks, lemon sharks are sociable creatures that seek out one another’s company and enjoy the benefits of cooperative living.
Although large, lemon sharks aren’t particularly aggressive and rarely attack humans. However, they do come close to shore, occupying river mouths and mangrove forests throughout the tropical Western Atlantic Ocean.
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Despite its wide distribution, the lemon shark is near threatened, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Over the past few years, the population has declined due to overfishing and habitat loss.
As juveniles, these sharks have a highly developed homing instinct and are, according to shark expert Ian Bouyoucos from the Cape Eleuthera Institute, “very much attached to specific habitats.”
#10 Bull Sharks
One of the most dangerous and aggressive sharks in the ocean, the bull shark has been responsible for nearly 100 shark attacks, many of them fatal.
While commonly seen off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, bull sharks can also survive in freshwater for years at a time.
One was found 15 miles north of St. Louis in the Mississippi River some years back!
Bull sharks are ferocious hunters with powerful jaws and a surprising amount of agility, given their stocky bodies.
Although they primarily eat bony fish and small sharks, they’ll also prey on seabirds and, occasionally, sea turtles.
Bull sharks commonly swim into shallow coastal waters and river mouths, where they come into close proximity to humans. This, combined with their pugnacious attitude, makes them potentially more dangerous than the much larger white shark.
#11 Basking Shark
One of several filter feeders found in the Atlantic Ocean, the basking shark, is a pelagic species found worldwide in both arctic and temperate waters.
Growing up to 40 feet long, it’s one of the largest creatures in the sea but, despite its size, poses no threat to humans.
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The basking shark has an exclusive diet made up only of plankton. So it idles along with its mouth open, “filtering 2,000 tons of seawater per hour over its complicated gills.”
Found throughout both the North and south Atlantic Ocean, the basking shark moves between coastal and oceanic waters.
It can dive as deep as 3,000 feet and, on occasion, leaps nearly 4 feet above the water’s surface.
#12 Megamouth Shark
Another filter feeder, the megamouth shark, reaches around 16 feet, making it similar in size to the great white shark. However, unlike the great white, the megamouth shark is a slow-moving species that rarely exceeds 2 kph.
With its huge, circular mouth, the megamouth shark consumes vast quantities of krill.
Although little is known about this elusive species, researchers have been able to identify it as a vertical migrator.
Spending most of the day in deeper waters, the megamouth ascends up the water column at night, following its prey to warmer climes.
What is the Most Common Shark in the Atlantic Ocean?
Once endangered, the spiny dogfish shark is now the most common in the Atlantic Ocean, particularly towards the North.
However, in the mid-Atlantic region, you’re more likely to encounter the lemon shark, sandbar, or smooth dogfish shark.
What are the Most Dangerous Sharks in the Atlantic Ocean?
When it comes to dangerous sharks, our minds nearly always go to the great white.
Movies like Jaws have done great white sharks a disservice, presenting them as indiscriminate killers, rather than intelligent apex predators.
As dangerous as the great white shark is, many believe the bull shark poses a greater threat, due to its preferred habitat and aggressive nature.
The Atlantic Ocean may not have a reputation for shark-infested waters but, as populations dominate to recover and flourish, that could soon change.
From the deep ocean habitats frequented by the frilled sharks to the warmer, shallower waters preferred by the blacktip, the diversity of the Atlantic Ocean habitat attracts just about every kind of shark and a wide variety of marine animals.
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This diversity makes for a healthy ecosystem, especially when apex predators like the great white shark continue to thrive.
That may mean a slightly higher risk of a shark attack occurring in the Atlantic, but it remains a lot less likely than falling off a ladder.
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.