Sharks are well-known for being specialized hunting machines, roaming the oceans for 450 million years! But so much about their behavior remains unknown, and many of these mysterious creatures are in decline, in danger of going extinct.
The movie ‘Jaws’ painted a dark picture of great white sharks jumping into boats and silently hunting swimmers on popular beaches. We now know this is an inaccurate and damaging portrayal of a creature that typically doesn’t see people as food.
So, can sharks jump out of the water?
The answer is yes! And in fact, this ability isn’t limited to great whites. Bull sharks, mako, black tips, and even basking sharks have now been documented jumping out of the water or breaching, as it’s known to marine biologists.
Discovering the secrets of shark behavior is crucial to understanding how to protect them.
Of all the questions that recently come up in shark behavior research, one of the most curious is why some sharks breach?
Let’s take a look at some of the documented cases and see if we can come to any conclusions.
Which sharks have been known to breach?
Probably the most notorious breaching sharks are the great whites.
These vulnerable, giant hunters are the largest predatory fish, weighing 1100-1800lb, and have been recorded breaching while hunting off the coast of South Africa.
This behavior has been spotted elsewhere, but off the coast of Seal Island is the best place to spot them.
The shortfin mako is a large, endangered mackerel shark that can weigh up to 1100lb, and this shark is fast! In fact, it’s the fastest swimming shark there is. They’re known to breach quickly when hunting or caught on a line.
Spinner sharks are related to the blacktip and bull sharks and have a peculiar habit of making spinning leaps out of the water. These sharks are ‘near threatened’, which means they’re close to being registered as a threatened species.
Blacktip sharks are medium-sized hunters of small fish, frequently seen breaching amid shoals of their prey. Blacktips are also classed as near threatened.
Bull sharks weren’t known for breaching behavior, but researchers have now confirmed cases of juvenile sharks jumping out of the water in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida. Bull sharks are another species that is near threatened.
Basking sharks are probably the most surprising group of sharks to have been recorded breaching. These endangered slow-moving, cold-blooded sharks eat plankton and are known for their lazy passage through cold waters, gobbling up tons of minuscule crustaceans. However, recently they’ve been seen exhibiting uncharacteristic levels of energy, breaking through the surface like great whites.
What is the fastest breaching shark?
If you’ve been paying attention, you can probably guess the answer to this already.
Of all shark species, the shortfin mako shark is the fastest. While a great white can hit some impressive speeds of up to 35mph, the mako tops out at around 40mph! Breaching at this speed explains how they also hold the record for the highest jump.
How High Can a Shark Jump?
Great white sharks typically jump 8-10ft out of the water, but the highest recorded breach was 15ft!
Mako sharks, being the fasted shark, perhaps unsurprisingly hold the highest average breach height at around 15ft, and there are unconfirmed reports of them reaching up to 30ft! If this is true, it would be the record breach of any known fish!
Blacktip reef sharks and bull shark pups are able to jump fully out of the water, meaning they can jump at least a few feet! But this behavior isn’t well documented yet, so we don’t know exactly how high they can breach.
In recent observations, basking sharks, despite their slow and lumbering nature, managed a significant 3.9ft breach.
So, depending on the shark, breaching height can be anywhere between 1-30ft!
But these sharks aren’t jumping onto boats to attack people. So why exactly are they jumping?
Why do sharks jump out of the water?
Breaching is a behavior exhibited by many marine animals. Dolphins, whales, rays, fish, and sharks are all known to do it.
Sometimes it’s pretty obvious why such as when a great white ambushes a seal from the murky deep with a powerful charge.
But other times, it’s a little bit of a mystery. As with many things about sharks, often, we just don’t know.
Here’s are some known reasons why marine animals breach:
- Hunting – as mentioned, we know some animals will breach when attacking, but some will also breach to try and find food or to disorient it and herd it together for easy pickings.
- Parasites – Dolphins have been known to breach in order to remove parasites, and it’s theorized that blacktip sharks might sometimes do it for the same reason.
- Social interaction – breaching can also be a way of signaling to other animals that you’re there. As an animal crashes back into the ocean, it sends out distinctive soundwaves that can be picked up over long distances by the extremely sensitive instrumentation of another animal’s sensory organs.
- Fun – many animals other than humans enjoy playing games. Breaching, in some cases, is considered just a really fun thing to do. SPLASH!
Why don’t we know why some sharks breach?
Why each species breaches isn’t always obvious.
A lot of claims about these behaviors are made as educated (or some, less-educated) guesses.
Blacktip sharks have been spotted “spy hopping”, which is a behavior that we think involves poking their head out of the water to look for prey. This could indicate that breaching is also a reconnaissance practice, but that’s far from being confirmed.
It has been noted that when basking sharks breach, the attached lampreys remain very much attached.
This suggests that it’s not a very effective strategy for removing parasites – at least not lampreys – so there must be another reason.
They also breach day and night, so it’s not a visual signaling thing. Hunting is out since basking sharks only eat slow-moving plankton. Essentially, your guess is as good as ours there…
Many of the breaching events caught on camera involve sharks that are caught on lines.
It’s hardly surprising that they want to jump about with a hook through their faces, and it suggests that certain species might be breaching to avoid predators – something which has been observed in other fish species.
Sharks have long been feared, demonized, and hunted by people to the point where many species are endangered, and many more are on that path.
These ancient, elusive animals don’t give up their secrets easily, so if we are ever to do a good job of protecting them, it’s imperative that we learn as much as we can about their behavior in order to know how best to help.
Therefore, breaching is one of the many mysteries of shark behavior that needs to be solved.
Sometimes the reason is obvious, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell. Every time though, it’s a really cool thing to see!