American Oceans

The Different Types of Sharks

Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years, which means they’ve been swimming in the ocean longer than trees have existed. They are majestic creatures often misunderstood and instill fear in many people.

Great white shark close up swimming

However, of over 500 species of sharks, not one lists people as their preferred food group. Different shark species have distinctive appearances, coloring, anatomy, and hunting styles, and a few of them aren’t even carnivores.

We’ll take a look at some of the most common types of sharks swimming in oceans worldwide.

Great White Shark

As nature’s perfect predator, the Great White shark is universally feared. It’s perhaps the most distinctive looking shark from its grey body and white underbelly to its mouth filled with 300 teeth.

Great White Shark deep blue ocean predator

It’s certainly iconic. They can grow up to 20 feet long, but the average white is about 15 feet long and can weigh as much as 5,000 lbs.

They live all around the world in cool, coastal waters, though they migrate thousands of miles. Living in coastal waters makes them more likely to encounter, interact with, and attack humans, though people are not their preferred food choice.

Attacks usually come out of curiosity, as Great Whites often perform something of a taste test when encountering a person.

Tiger Shark

While the largest Tiger shark ever caught was 3,360 lbs. and 18 feet long, they usually average about 1,200 lbs. and 15 to 18 feet long (females are longer). This shark has dark stripes on its body that look a lot like tiger stripes, hence this fellow’s name.

Tiger Shark apex predators underwater

They are considered apex predators, although they do fall prey to killer whales from time to time. Tiger sharks live all over the world in warm waters and can spend time as far down as 1,000 feet.

They are often the sharks involved in attacks on humans, though this doesn’t mean that human meat is their favorite, but rather may be the result of the fact that they’ll eat pretty much anything— even garbage in the ocean.

Whale Shark

There is no bigger fish in the ocean than the Whale shark. They have spots and stripes on a grey-blue body, can grow up to 45 feet long and live nearly a century.

Whale Sharks gentle harmless giants

They are gentle giants, though, and there has never been a recorded attack on humans by one of these behemoths.

They are filter feeders, growing to their giant proportions on a diet of plankton and fish eggs filtered through their tiny teeth.

Whale sharks’ mouths can be up to five feet wide, and they have three distinct ridges on either side of their backs.

Bull Shark

Probably the shark who attacked Paige Winter in 2019, the Bull shark is a singular creature. It’s a shark, but it can thrive in freshwater, even being found in the Mississippi River, Lake Nicaragua, and 2,000 miles up the Amazon River.

Scary-looking Bull Shark aggressive underwater

With their short snouts and aggressive behavior, they both look and act somewhat like bulls, and their aggressiveness has them playing a role in many attacks on people.

They grow to about 11 feet long, weigh nearly 500 lbs, and are dark grey with a white belly. Winter isn’t angry with the shark that took her leg and some fingers, saying it was just “doing its shark thing.”

Hammerhead Shark

Perhaps the most recognizable shark due to its titular hammer-shaped head, the Hammerhead shark is strangely simultaneously odd-looking and still majestic.

Hammerhead Shark swimming under the waters

They grow to about 1,000lbs and up to 20 feet and have a very tall, sickle-shaped back fin. Their mouths are quite large relative to other sharks and filled with lots of sharp teeth.

But it’s the hammerhead that makes them so identifiable. With their eyes on either side of the hammer shape, Hammerhead sharks have a 360° line of sight on a vertical plane.

This means it’s effortless for them to spot prey above or below them in the ocean. They live off the coasts of North America, Japan, Western Europe, Africa, and Australia but are highly endangered— there may be as few as 200 of them left in the oceans.

Shortfin Mako Shark

The Shortfin Mako lives in ocean water around the globe between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, as they prefer water 60°F or warmer.

Shortfin Mako Shark swimming fast under ocean water

Like its relative, the Mako shark, it’s extremely fast, sometimes reaching speeds near 45 mph. A Shortfin Mako grows to be about 12 feet long and sports a short, cone-shaped snout.

While this shark’s dorsal side (top) is a metallic blue and the ventral (underbelly) side is white like many sharks’, unlike other species, the Shortfin Mako’s two colors are distinctly separated rather than fading into one another.

A Shortfin Mako is the shark that takes a bite out of Santiago’s marlin in Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea.

Goblin Shark

The Goblin shark is often called the Vampire shark because it prefers to spend its time deep enough (4,300 feet) that no light can reach them. And they are freaky. Seriously.

Goblin Shark 3D-rendered under the deep sea

Pink or purple, Goblin sharks have a strangely long snout and protrusible teeth, which means they can essentially extend their teeth out of their mouth to reach after prey.

The Goblin shark wasn’t discovered until 1898, and it looks like a modern dinosaur. It is part of the Mitsukurinidae family of sharks, which is 125 million years old, and the Goblin shark looks like a creature from those days.

Mako Shark

The so-called “cheetah of the ocean,” the Mako shark can reach speeds of up to 80 mph. Its sharp teeth stick out even when its mouth is closed, making it look pretty menacing.

Mako Shark swimming near the surface of ocean

That’s not an accident. Makos are aggressive and have been involved in many attacks on humans.

Other characteristics that set them apart from other sharks include their use of those teeth that shred their prey’s fins so the fish can’t swim away and that they are warm-blooded. Mako sharks get to be about 10 feet long and 300 lbs.

Blue Shark

Male Blue sharks grow to about 120 lbs., while females can reach 400. They are generally 10-11 feet long and have given birth to over a hundred babies in one litter.

Blue Shark swimming in tropical waters

Like most sharks, Blue sharks have white underbellies, but their distinguishing feature is the rich blue color covering the top of their bodies.

They also have extremely long pectoral fins and huge eyes. Blue sharks live all over the world in temperate and tropical waters.

They do not usually attack humans, but they aren’t exactly shy, either, so they have chastened divers who have messed with them in the past.

Lemon Shark

Lemon sharks have a yellowish hue to them to camouflage themselves against the sandy bottom of waters from northern American shores in the Atlantic down to Brazil. They typically grow to about 10 feet.

Lemon Shark under the bottom of waters

Its two dorsal fins are roughly the same size, an unusual feature in sharks, as their second fin is usually markedly smaller.

The Lemon shark has a flattish head with a short snout. It eats fish and crab and poses no threat to people.

Basking Shark

Basking sharks are giants with giant (three-foot-wide) mouths, so in theory, they could swallow a person, but they don’t. They are not a danger to people.

Basking Sharks with their gaping mouths open

The biggest ever recorded (in 1851) was more than 40 feet long and weighed 32,000 lbs., but they usually grow to about 26 feet. They are the second-largest fish in the ocean.

They swim with their gaping mouths open, sucking up plankton, which means they spend a lot of time near the surface.

They have a system of gills inside their mouth to filter plankton from the water and can filter up to 130,000 gallons of water per hour through them.

Thresher Shark

This fascinating shark has a tail half the length of its body, which it uses in hunting— using it to herd fish where it wants them to go so it can then whack them with it, stunning them or knocking them out, at which time the dinner bell rings.

Thresher Shark group swimming in temperate waters

Thresher sharks are grey with darker fins and can grow about 20 feet long. They are aggressive sharks that live in temperate waters with a concentration in the northern Atlantic Ocean. That said, Thresher sharks are shy and avoid humans as much as possible.

Greenland Shark

Part of the so-called sleeper shark family, Greenland sharks move slowly and are somewhat lumbering creatures, which fits since they’re enormous.

Greenland Shark near the ocean ground

They grow to 24 feet, tip the scales at more than 2,500 lbs., and live for at least 300 years. This makes them the longest-living vertebrate on the planet.

They come in many colors, have tiny eyes and fins (which helps explain their sluggish movement), and have teeth unique among sharks.

The top row teeth are small and pointy, while the bottom teeth are bigger and smoother. They eat smaller fish and enjoy scavenging larger dead things like beluga whales. They aren’t dangerous to humans unless humans eat them, as their meat is quite toxic.

Spiny Dogfish

Named for its defensive strategy, the Spiny Dogfish has venomous spines on its dorsal fins to stab and poison its prey and its attackers.

Spiny Dogfish swimming at arctic coastal waters

These sharks are brown or grey with a white underside and white spots on their sides. They rarely grow longer than three feet.

They prefer temperate to arctic coastal waters and can frolic at depths of 3,000 feet. Its 24-month gestation period makes it the vertebrate that takes the longest of all to have a baby.

The only threat they pose to humans is if people mishandle the spines on the shark’s fins, though they’re not poisonous enough to kill a person.

Dusky Shark

These big guys are sharks not many people know of, but they’re big— 12 feet long and up to 400 lbs. They can live up to 50 years and don’t reach sexual maturity until about 20 years.

Dusky Shark traveling from equatorial waters to poles

They migrate far with the seasons, traveling from equatorial waters to the poles during summer and returning after.

Younger Dusky sharks fall prey to larger sharks, but adult Duskies have few threats other than overfishing— a pronounced danger since they reproduce so slowly and their population generally does not grow.

Sandbar Shark

Guess where these guys like to hang out? If you guessed “sandbar,” you win two paragraphs about the Sandbar shark.

Sandbar Shark swim under the ocean

These greyish-bronze creatures have long dorsal fins for sharks and can be found in sandy areas in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. They are the most common sharks in the Chesapeake Bay.

They eat crabs, shrimp, squids, and smaller fish and grow to about eight feet long. Since they like the sand, they are considered bottom-dwellers and can swim around as deep as 650 feet below the surface.

Blacktip Shark

Blacktips keep to subtropical and island waters, preferring to keep their dark grey bodies and namesake black-tipped fins in warmer climates.

Shoal of blacktip sharks swim underwater

They do not dive very deep (not more than 100 feet), so this can tend to bring them into contact with humans, though they’re pretty shy. There have been some attacks, but almost all resulted in minor injuries (only one known fatality).

They grow to be about six feet long and travel in schools— as many as 1,000 of them –traveling together.

They reproduce relatively quickly, so they are not endangered even though they are fished as a food source.

Bonnethead Shark

Bonnethead sharks are related to Hammerheads, so they have that same flat, broad head, though not as flat and wide as the Hammerhead.

Bonnethead Shark swimming in ocean in natural habitat

Unusual among sharks, they tend to feed during the day and are on the smaller end of the spectrum—they never get bigger than about five feet long.

They tend to live in warmer waters and stay close to the shore, but we know of only one attack by a Bonnethead on a human ever.

Caribbean Reef Shark

With their unusually large eyes and dusky-colored fins, the Caribbean Reef shark is distinctive in its appearance, especially with the ridge that runs between their two dorsal fins. They have a short, round snout and are usually dark grey.

Caribbean Reef Shark swims around reefs

These creatures live on and around reefs, so they tend to eat the smaller fish that live in the same areas. They don’t consume large prey, so humans aren’t on their menus.

Attacks are rare (24 in the last few hundred years) and have never been fatal— when they bite, they seem to recognize their mistake and stop instantly to pursue other food sources.

Nurse Shark

We’re not entirely sure why they’re called Nurse sharks, but we do know that they have extremely long tail fins— sometimes constituting as much as a quarter of the shark’s seven- to nine-foot length.

Nurse Shark under the ocean in reefs

They are greyish brown and have a somewhat puckered look to their mouths with a couple of whiskers that evoke catfish.

At about 300 pounds, they aren’t the biggest sharks, but their jaws are powerful. They also have thousands of teeth, so these two characteristics can add up to trouble if they get spooked or otherwise provoked by people. Nurse shark attacks are somewhat rare, but they do occur from time to time.

Spinner Shark

Spinner sharks live near the shores of the Western Atlantic. They’re grey or bronze with dark tips on their fins.

Spinner Shark near Atlantic ocean

They grow to about eight feet long, and like many shark species, the females typically grow longer than males.

They prefer to eat smaller fish in schools, and they haunt them by swimming through those schools while spinning and leaping out of the water in their pursuit of dinner.

They are not usually dangerous to humans, though the few attacks recorded happened when people got in the way of the sharks’ meal times.

Porbeagle Shark

The Porbeagle shark looks a lot like a Great White but is a little smaller— it grows to about eight feet long.

Porbeagle Shark under the cold water

It lives in cold water and loves to eat mackerel, which is why it’s sometimes called a mackerel shark.

Its name comes from the Cornish language, where it’s called a porgh-bugel. It’s shaped like a porpoise and hunts well, like a beagle.

Porbeagle attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, and no known fatalities have resulted from the few attacks there have been.

Sand Tiger Shark

Growing up to ten feet long and sporting a mouthful of teeth, the Sand Tiger shark looks pretty scary to some.

Sand Tiger Shark in warm coastal waters

However, the teeth aren’t arranged neatly and deadly like a Great White’s, but rather, they kind of jut out in all directions, even when the shark closes its mouth. So he can look kind of derpy.

For all the teeth and their sharpness, the Sand Tiger shark has a record of attacking humans only when provoked, but since they live in warm coastal waters year-round, they tend to encounter people. They’re usually grey, so it’s no surprise that they are also referred to as grey nurse sharks.

Bluntnose Sixgill Shark

The Bluntnose Sixgill grows to about 16 feet long and can be brown, grey, and even olive green in color.

Bluntnose Sixgill Shark underwater near coastline

Unsurprisingly, their distinguishing feature is their blunt snout. They do not pose a threat to people in general, though there have been some recorded attacks.

Also known as the cow shark, this fish lives off of nearly every coastline in the world outside of those in the Indian Ocean.

They spend the bulk of their days at depths of 5,000 feet or more, coming nearer to the surface in the evenings to hunt squids, fish, crabs, and even other sharks. Because they spend so much time so deep, we don’t know much about them.

Megamouth Shark

The megamouth shark is a gentle giant and another type of shark that we honestly don’t know all that much about.

It’s an extremely rare creature, but we do know they typically grow to about 15 feet in length. They seem to congregate mostly in Asian waters near Japan and Vietnam.

Megamouth sharks are filter feeders, meaning they’re no threat to people. They swim with their megamouth open to grab up plankton, jellyfish, and shrimp.

They have big, bulbous heads, blue-black bodies, and bioluminescent pores around their mouths, thought to act as a lure to their prey.

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