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What is the largest shark alive?

Sharks come in all shapes and sizes, from the dwarf lanternshark that fits in your hand to the colossal whale shark that can grow over 60 feet long. Of all the 500+ shark species swimming the world’s oceans today, which one is the largest currently in existence? Let’s dive in and explore some of the largest shark species to discover the true giant of the shark world.

Key Facts About Large Sharks

Before getting into the specific species, here are some key facts about the largest sharks alive today:

  • The whale shark is considered the largest fish and largest shark in the world today.
  • The maximum size for whale sharks is estimated to be around 60-65 feet long.
  • Whale sharks can weigh up to 75,000 pounds or 34 tons.
  • The largest whale shark on record was reportedly 61.7 feet long.
  • Other massive shark species include the basking shark, great white shark, megamouth shark, bluntnose sixgill shark, Greenland shark, and tiger shark.
  • Large sharks share common traits like slow growth rates, long lifespans, late sexual maturity, and few offspring.
  • Many large sharks are filter feeders that eat plankton and small fish.
  • All large shark species are listed as Vulnerable or Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Now let’s look at some of the most massive shark species in more detail.

Whale Shark

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is hands-down the largest shark and fish species in existence today. It’s a huge, slow-moving carpet shark with a wide, flat head and pronounced ridges along its sides. Despite their tremendous size, whale sharks feed on tiny plankton and small fish filtered through their enormous mouths. Here are some key facts about this gentle giant of the shark world:

  • Maximum size is 60-65 feet and 34 tons.
  • Largest on record was 61.7 feet long.
  • Average size is 20-33 feet long.
  • Found in tropical and warm temperate seas worldwide.
  • Lifespan estimated to be 70-100 years.
  • Matures around 25 years and produces hundreds of pups.
  • Feed by passive filter feeding and suction feeding.
  • Completely harmless to humans.
  • Listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

From the plankton-filled waters off Jamaica to the coral reefs of Australia, the whale shark reigns as the undisputed largest shark in the world today and throughout Earth’s history. Its enormous size and docile nature make it one of a kind in the shark world.

Basking Shark

The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest fish and shark species in the ocean. Like the whale shark, it is a massive filter feeder that roams temperate waters worldwide in search of zooplankton and small fish. Distinctive traits include its huge, gaping mouth and long gill slits almost encircling its head. Here are key basking shark facts:

  • Grows up to 40 feet long and over 5 tons.
  • Average size is 16-32 feet.
  • Found in boreal to warm-temperate waters.
  • Lifespan estimated at 50 years.
  • Matures at 16+ years and produces 6-20 pups.
  • Feeds by swimming with mouth open to filter food.
  • Considered harmless to humans.
  • Listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

While not quite measuring up to the whale shark, the basking shark is an apex filter feeder in cold to temperate waters around the globe. Watch for these placid swimmers off New England, Japan, South Africa, and more as they gracefully forage with mouths wide open.

Great White Shark

Undoubtedly the most famous and feared shark in the world, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) has a reputation as a fierce apex predator of the seas. Reaching lengths over 20 feet and weights up to 7,000 pounds, it is one of the largest predatory sharks roaming ocean waters today. Here are quick great white facts:

  • Reaches up to 20 feet long and over 4 tons.
  • Average size is 11-16 feet.
  • Found worldwide in cool, coastal waters.
  • Lifespan estimated at 70+ years.
  • Matures at 9-14 years and produces up to 10 pups.
  • Active predator with exceptional sense of smell.
  • Considered dangerous to humans.
  • Listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Whether patrolling the shores of Australia or the coastal waters of California, the great white shark is an iconic ocean giant and consummate predator instantly recognizable by its torpedo-shaped body, huge jaw, and serrated, triangular teeth. Its combination of size, power, and adaptability crown it one of the oceans’ apex predators.

Other Massive Shark Species

In addition to the three giant shark species already covered, there are several other titans of the shark world that reach impressively large sizes, although not quite measuring up to the whale shark. Here is a quick overview of more big shark contenders:

Megamouth Shark

The aptly named megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) is a rare, filter feeding species with a distinctive bulbous, cavernous mouth. It reaches lengths of 18 feet and weights up to 2,500 pounds. Only about 100 sightings have occurred since its discovery in 1976.

Bluntnose Sixgill Shark

The powerful bluntnose sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus) is a deepwater species that frequents tropical and temperate seas. It can reach up to 16 feet long and feed on other sharks, rays, and fish. They are opportunistic night hunters found from shallow coasts down to depths of 8,000 feet.

Greenland Shark

The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is a huge, thickset shark that cruises the frigid Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. They can exceed 20 feet long and 1 ton in weight. With a slow metabolism and long lifespan, Greenland sharks are believed to have exceptional longevity, possibly over 200 years.

Tiger Shark

Known for their stripes and voracious appetite, tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) are large requiem sharks found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters. They average 10-14 feet long but can reportedly reach over 18 feet in length. Tiger sharks will eat just about anything, from fish and turtles to dolphins and even license plates.

Largest Shark: Conclusion

While sharks come in all sizes, the whale shark stands alone as the largest shark and fish species in the world today. Growing up to 60 feet long and weighing up to 34 tons, this massive yet docile fish has dominated the oceans for millions of years as one of Earth’s greatest giants. The basking shark and great white shark rank as runners-up, both reaching maximum lengths around 20 feet. Measuring sharks by weight, the Greenland shark tops out at over 2,000 pounds, followed by the tiger shark at nearly 2 tons.

Though not the longest sharks, both the Greenland and bluntnose sixgill sharks deserve honorable mentions for their extreme heft and mass. While the megamouth shark may seem misnamed next to the whale shark, it still can grow to impressive lengths of 16+ feet. Clearly, the largest sharks exhibit a combination of extreme length, weight, lifespan, delayed maturity, and few offspring – all adaptations allowing them to achieve their superlative sizes.

From coastal California to frigid Greenland, these gentle giants and apex predators represent the peak of shark evolution. As human activities threaten many large shark species, it is critical that we protect these ancient ocean rulers to ensure their survival for future generations. Their loss would create an immeasurable void in the fabric of marine ecosystems worldwide.

Largest Shark Species Comparison

To summarize and compare the key size attributes of the largest shark species:

Shark Species Maximum Length Maximum Weight Average Length Habitat
Whale Shark 60-65 feet 34 tons 20-33 feet Tropical oceans
Basking Shark 40 feet 5 tons 16-32 feet Temperate oceans
Great White Shark 20 feet 4 tons 11-16 feet Coastal oceans
Megamouth Shark 18 feet 2.5 tons 13-16 feet Tropical oceans
Bluntnose Sixgill Shark 16 feet 1.5 tons 10-12 feet Deep oceans
Greenland Shark 20+ feet 2 tons 12-16 feet Arctic oceans
Tiger Shark 18 feet 2 tons 10-14 feet Tropical oceans

In conclusion, the whale shark is undisputedly the largest shark in the world today, with a combination of extreme length up to 65 feet, weight up to 34 tons, tropical distribution worldwide, and gentle filter feeding habits. Coming in second is the basking shark at 40 feet long, followed by the legendary great white shark at 20 feet. Numerous other shark giants help round out the contenders for largest shark honors.

Though varying in length, weight, habitat, and diet, these massive sharks represent the pinnacle of shark evolution and diversity. As vital components of ocean ecosystems, preserving these remaining giants should be a top conservation priority to protect the health of seas worldwide.