Underwater Breathing: Do Whale Sharks Have Gills?

do whale sharks have gills

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So, do whale sharks have gills?

In short, yes, whale sharks do have gills. This allows them to breathe oxygen through the water and stay submerged, unlike other air-breathing whales and dolphins.

Whale sharks have five large gill slits on each side of their head which allow the shark to pick up oxygen that is dissolved in the water.

This means they do not need to come to the surface and breathe oxygen like many other marine creatures.

Let’s take a closer look…

How Do Whale Sharks Breathe?

As mentioned above, whale sharks have five large gill slits on each side of their head which allow them to extract oxygen from the water and breathe.

This means they can stay submerged without having to come to the surface for air.

So why do whale sharks swim to the surface of the ocean?

Well, new research suggests that these stunning sharks come to the surface to warm up from the cold depths that they usually swim at.

whale shark
Image by Aqua Immersion

This is why these sharks can be seen in tropical waters in the likes of Thailand and Australia.

With 75% of whale sharks are found in the Indian and Pacific oceans whilst 25% are found in the Atlantic according to the International Union For Conservation of Nature.

Do Whale Sharks Have Lungs?

Whale sharks do not have lungs, and instead, extract oxygen from the water through their gills.

All sharks do not have lungs, but they do need to breathe oxygen to survive.

This is where their gills come into play, helping them take oxygen from the water and expel carbon dioxide from their bodies.

This is why sharks do not need to come to the surface to breathe and can swim close to the bottom.

In fact, most sharks rarely surface at all, simply because they don’t need to.

How Do Whale Sharks Use Their Gills?

Whale sharks, like other marine animals with gills, will force water through them.

The water will then flow past lots of tiny blood vessels and the oxygen that is carried in the water will seep through the walls of those vessels into the blood.

Not only that but during this process, the carbon dioxide that is in the whale shark’s body will seep out.

This gives the whale shark the oxygen it needs without them having to come to the surface and breathe. 

Allowing them to stay submerged for as long as they desire, this is why they are often found in deep, deep waters.

What Makes Whale Sharks Different From Other Sharks?

Besides the fact that the whale shark is the biggest fish to swim in our oceans, they are actually quite different from many other sharks.

For starters, they are much more similar to whales than actual sharks, from their size to the way they feed.

However, whales do not have gills and instead have air holes. This means that, unlike whale sharks, they need to surface to breathe oxygen from the air.

The whale shark’s appearance is very different from that of say a bull or tiger shark.

Whale sharks’ heads are flattened, and they have a blunt snout above their mouths.

whale shark
Image by Mike Johnston

They also have a unique spotted pattern all over their body, which means that single whale sharks can be identified by this pattern.

The spots work like a fingerprint for humans, which is perfect for scientists that are tracking individuals.

Another difference between whale sharks and other sharks is that they don’t use their teeth to feed.

Great white sharks will use their huge, razor-like teeth and powerful bodies to breach out of the water whilst grabbing their prey.

Whereas whale sharks are feeders and instead use their wide mouths to scoop up plankton (not quite as exciting).


To conclude, yes whale sharks do have gills. They have five large gill slits at each side of their head which allows them to take oxygen from the water.

A whale shark’s breathing system is much like that of other sharks, but they are completely different in appearance and feeding habits.

Whale sharks are one of the most breathtaking animals to see, and I truly hope you get the opportunity to visit these magnificent animals if you ever take a trip to tropical waters!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post and I hope you’ve learned something new about whale sharks today.

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