When we think of sharks, our minds almost always drift towards visions of gaping mouths full of sharp teeth that erupt from the water at high speed.
In our minds, there is nothing larger nor more terrifying than a great white shark, but much of that is a myth.
The great white’s notoriety is largely due to its starring role in the 1975 movie Jaws rather than any scientific evidence.
Bruce, the mechanical shark that starred in the movie, measured 25 feet in length, significantly larger than the biggest great white ever recorded.
Even that isn’t particularly large when compared to the biggest sharks in the world, but we rarely even give them a second thought. Why? Probably because they pose so little threat to humans, despite their size.
What is the Biggest Shark in the World?
Since the Megalodon went extinct over three million years ago, the whale shark has become the world’s biggest shark. Even when the Megalodon was still alive, the whale shark gave it a run for its money.
Researchers theorize that the Megalodon measured approximately 50 to 60 feet long, and the whale shark isn’t far behind.
This huge shark averages around 40 feet in length, although the largest one on record exceeded 60 feet! Not only is the whale shark big, but it’s also heavy, weighing around 20 tons.
Despite their size, whale sharks are gentle creatures that only endanger the lives of tiny plankton rather than large fish or marine mammals.
Whale sharks are so harmless that it’s perfectly safe to swim and snorkel with these graceful filter feeders – an experience that should be on every shark lover’s bucket list!
The 10 Biggest Sharks in the World Still Alive
#1 Whale Shark
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea, but instead of using their size to dominate, they spend their time passively filtering everything in their path.
Keeping up with the needs of a body this size requires almost constant feeding, and a 20-foot-long juvenile whale shark must consume around 21kg of plankton a day to meet its energy requirements.
The three largest sharks in the world all rely on a diet of microscopic creatures that measure less than an inch long. Fortunately, they don’t have to use a knife and fork to consume them. They simply swim along with their mouths wide open and let their filter pads do the work for them.
As the seawater washes into the shark’s mouth, the tiny organisms collect on the filter pads specifically designed for this purpose.
It may not seem like the most effective way of eating, but it works well enough for the whale shark. This species has been around for over 200 million years, but individual whale sharks can live for up to 130 years, suggesting that a diet of microscopic plankton is a lot better for you than fast food and takeaways!
#2 Basking Shark
There are over 200,000 whale sharks left in the world, yet only around 10,000 basking sharks, which is possibly why you haven’t heard of them before.
Like the whale shark, the basking shark is a filter feeder that drifts through the ocean with its mouth open wide, gathering microscopic meals as it goes.
The largest basking shark on record measures just over 40 feet long, but most individuals average between 22 and 29 feet.
They weigh between 3.9 and 10 tons, with the liver making up 25% of that total. That liver contains a low-density hydrocarbon called squalene, “that helps give the shark near-neutral buoyancy.”
Despite their considerable size and limited speed, basking sharks will jump out of the water or breach from time to time – a behavior that’s left scientists mystified.
Why would a 10-ton shark that usually travels at 1.5 kph suddenly accelerate to 18 kph and jettison itself some 1.2 meters into the air? We’re still not sure, but it could be a form of courtship or a way to remove irritating parasites.
Whatever the reason, it seems to have little impact on the basking shark’s longevity as these peaceful filter-feeders can live for around 50 years.
#3 Megamouth Shark
Another of the ocean’s giant filter-feeders, the megamouth shark reaches lengths of between 13 to 16 feet. As with many shark species, the females are larger than the males and can get up to 18 feet long.
Unsurprisingly, the megamouth shark has a particularly large mouth that, in a 16-foot-long individual, would be approximately four feet wide.
In theory, an adult megamouth could swallow an unsuspecting human being, but the chances of a human hanging out in the deep ocean that megamouths prefer is virtually impossible.
Megamouths swim in shallower waters at night but, during the day, descend as far as 15,000 feet below the surface.
Like the basking shark, it relies on a large oily liver for its buoyancy but is “considered to be a poor swimmer” that rarely exceeds 1.5 kph.
The megamouth compensates for this by luring its microscopic prey to its enormous mouth using the luminous photophores around its lips.
#4 Great White Shark
Most female great whites average around 15 to 16 feet, while males rarely exceed 13 feet in length, which is only a foot longer than the average great hammerhead.
The biggest great white on record is a female known as Deep Blue, who was first spotted off the coast of Mexico in 2015 and is 20 feet long. Scientists estimate that she weighs around 4,500 pounds, which is considerably more than the average basking shark.
Although the great white is commonly seen as the top marine predator, it’s not much bigger than the tiger shark, which National Geographic states “can grow to as much as 20 to 25 feet in length and weigh more than 1,900 pounds.”
Not only that, but the great white is also in danger of losing its apex predator status to the fearless orca. Great whites were once a common occurrence along South Africa’s coastline but have “abandoned former key habitats” to escape the threat of the mighty orca.
#5 Great Hammerhead
Hammerhead sharks come in various shapes and sizes, with the great hammerhead being the largest.
Adult females usually grow to around 15 to 18 feet long, making them notably larger than the males, which average around 12 feet.
Scientists suspect that great hammerheads can grow as long as 20 feet, but no sharks of this size have ever been caught and measured. One of the biggest specimens ever caught measured approximately 14 feet and 7⅜ inches – a good deal smaller than Deep Blue and her friends.
Compared with other large shark species, the great hammerhead is a bit of a lightweight, only getting up to around 1,000 lbs.
Although hammerheads are considered fairly harmless, they are predatory animals and aggressive hunters. They will also react defensively to any perceived threats, which is why there have been a handful of attacks over the years.
Great hammerheads may be large, powerful creatures, but research suggests they’re also surprisingly fragile. Recent studies suggest “that individuals that are hooked have a 50% chance of dying following release.”
#6 Tiger Shark
Tiger sharks are arguably one of the most underestimated of all shark species. Not only are they big, but they’re also aggressive and happy to eat almost anything that comes their way. Tiger sharks generally measure between 10 and 14 feet long and weigh between 850 and 1,400 lbs.
Only a little smaller than the great white and just as aggressive, tiger sharks have an almost limitless diet. While they primarily feed on fish, squid, sea turtles, and shellfish, they won’t turn down the offer of sea birds or even garbage.
Affectionately known as the “garbage cans of the sea,” tiger sharks have been known to consume tires, bottles, and nails. They’ve also been found with the remains of land animals in their stomachs, including pigs and more strangely, hyenas!
Tiger sharks are ambush predators that use their notched teeth to rip through their prey. Their undiscerning palate means they’ll eat almost anything they get their teeth into, which could be why they’re responsible for so many attacks.
According to the International Shark Attack File, tiger sharks have been responsible for 142 attacks on humans, of which 39 have been fatal.
#7 Greenland Shark
The slow-moving Greenland shark is a species of cold-water sleeper shark. It’s one of the biggest sharks in the ocean, averaging lengths of between 8 and 14 feet, although the maximum length for the species is thought to be “over 21 ft [640 cm], possibly up to 24 ft [730 cm].”
The Greenland shark lives in such deep, cold water that few scientists or researchers have had the chance to study them, so our understanding of this species is rather limited.
In addition to being slow-moving, they’re also slow-growing, lengthening by less than an inch per year. It takes Greenland sharks around 150 years to reach sexual maturity, which is almost as long as it takes them to catch a fish!
Resembling a submarine, the Greenland shark coasts through the water at around 1 kph, preying on sleeping seals and scavenging rotting flesh.
#8 Bluntnose Sixgill Shark
Another lesser-known species of shark, the bluntnose sixgill can reach an impressive 18 feet in length and over 1,000 lbs in weight. They occur in temperate and tropical seas worldwide but rarely come into contact with humans due to their preference for deep waters.
Usually found in depths of between 590 to 3,610 ft, they’ve been known to descend as far down as 8,202 feet.
Bluntnose sixgill sharks are “generalist feeders” that will prey on fish, squid, and other sharks but also scavenge off the carcasses of dead seals and whales.
A primitive type of shark, the bluntnose sixgill is thought to date back to the Triassic period, when dinosaurs still walked the earth.
The deep-water habitat of the bluntnose six gill means it rarely comes into contact with humans, although it has been spotted in shallower water in the Strait of Georgia during the summer months.
#9 Thresher Shark
Thresher sharks are easily identified by their long tail fins, which measure about half the length of their bodies. This extra-long accessory makes the thresher shark one of the biggest sharks in the ocean, reaching lengths of around 10.5 feet for males and nearly 15 feet for females.
The maximum reported length of the thresher shark is 24.9 feet (760 cm), making it larger than your average great white!
Thresher sharks have a unique way of hunting, using their tails to stun the fish before circling back to gobble them up.
Preying mainly on small pelagic fish, such as anchovies, mackerel, and sardines, they’re considered harmless to humans despite their size.
Thresher sharks are notoriously shy and difficult to approach but can cause chaos if hooked and landed by an angler.
Using their long tails to propel them, these sharks can also leap out of the water, jumping up to six feet into the air!
#10 Pacific Sleeper Shark
The Pacific sleeper shark is easily confused with the Greenland shark, as both are large, slow-moving species that prefer cold, deep waters.
The Pacific sleeper shark is smaller than the Greenland shark, with adult females measuring between 12 and 14 feet long.
Experts speculate that individuals could reach lengths of more than 23 ft, based on photographic evidence.
Like the Greenland shark, the Pacific sleeper shark is both a hunter and a scavenger, feeding on whatever comes its way. It has a distinct distribution, however, preferring the cold waters of the Pacific to the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, where the Greenland shark hangs out.
The Pacific sleeper shark is closely related to the Greenland shark, and scientists suspect may share its long lifespan. Alaska SeaLife Center Studies scientist Dr. Amy Bishop believes they could live to “200-300 years old.”
The whale shark is by far the biggest shark in the ocean, measuring 50 to 60 feet in length. It is a peaceful, plankton-eating creature that coasts slowly through the ocean filtering small organisms out of the water while posing little threat to anyone else.
The next two largest species of shark, The basking and megamouth, are similar in that respect, both living off a diet of plankton and rarely traveling faster than around 1.5 kph.
Only once we get to the fourth-largest shark in the world, we run into an aggressive predator. The great white is probably the most feared of all sharks, and rightly so.
It can reach lengths of 20 feet and weigh up to 4,500 pounds, making it a formidable hunter. The tiger shark is only slightly smaller and just as aggressive.
While humans have nothing to fear from the biggest sharks in the world, a few smaller ones may mistakenly see us as prey if we enter their habitat.
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.