Coming in all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors, and classes, fish both large and small occupy almost every corner of our Earth’s oceans and seas, rivers, and lakes. While some are solitary in nature and are very rare and elusive, others form vast shimmering shoals that number in the thousands.
Although many dazzle with their beautiful colors and patterns or unique attributes and interesting habits, some of the most spectacular specimens are also the largest of all. Measuring up to dozens of feet in length and weighing tons and tons in total, the biggest fish in the world really do make for striking sights as they swim about below the surface.
10. Hoodwinker sunfish
As it was only discovered in 2014, not all too much is known about the Hoodwinker sunfish other than that it is one of the biggest fish on the planet. Closely related to the even larger Ocean sunfish, it remarkably reaches up to 7.9 feet in length and can weigh up to two tons.
Classified as Mola tecta, meaning ‘hidden millstone’ in Latin, the flattish fish is so named due to its almost symmetrical oval shape and the fact that it remained undetected for so long. Due to this, not much is yet known about its breeding habits, migratory patterns, or spawning grounds.
While it is mainly thought to reside in the colder climates of the Southern Hemisphere in the waters off of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile, the tailless fish has been found on two very rare occasions in the Northern Hemisphere.
9. Sharptail mola
Like its cousin the Hoodwinker sunfish, the massive Sharptail mola is very elusive with researchers still knowing relatively little about both its biology and behavior. One of the largest bony fish on Earth, it can measure up to 9.8 feet in length and also clocks in at around two tons.
While it also has an elliptical shape, it is so named due to its short, sword-like tail and instead lives in tropical and temperate waters. Impressively enough, a sharptail mola’s lifespan is estimated to be 105 years for females and 85 for males.
Rarely sighted at the surface, they spend most of their time at depths between 16 and 656 feet and are thought to regularly dive even deeper to both feed and avoid predators.
8. Beluga sturgeon
Also aptly called the great sturgeon, this colossal yet sadly critically endangered species can stretch a staggering 24 feet in length with the heaviest on record having weighed in at a hefty 3,463 lb. The largest freshwater fish in the world, it mainly inhabits the Caspian and Black Sea basins with some hardy populations just about hanging on in the Adriatic Sea.
Probably named beluga due to the white strips that line its belly and flanks, the bony fish belongs to a very old group of fish. This primitive, prehistoric lineage is evident in their large size, long snouts and shark-like tails with the almost dinosaur-like creatures also preying on other fish for food.
As beluga caviar is coveted the world round and the gigantic sturgeons take so long to reach sexual maturity, numbers are plummeting with fishing, habitat loss and dams contributing to their decline.
7. Southern sunfish
While the Southern sunfish only clocks in at about half the length of the longest Beluga sturgeon, the big bony fish does have it beat when it boils down to mass. Only equaled by its sizeable cousin the Ocean sunfish, it can weigh a whopping 2.3 tons and measure up to 11 feet in length.
Also known as the Ramsay’s sunfish, short sunfish and bump-head sunfish, the flat, round fish can be found throughout the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans. It spends a lot of time on its side, basking just beneath the surface which reheats them and recharges their oxygen stores before they dive back into colder waters in search of jellyfish, brittle stars and plankton, their main prey.
Easily distinguished by the noticeable bump on its head, the southern sunfish has a small parrot-like beak, large fins, and a rough, leathery-like texture.
6. Ocean sunfish
The largest living bony fish on the planet, the enormous Ocean sunfish can reach a huge 2.3 tons in total and stretch 10.8 feet in length. Also called the common mola, the incredible creature is native to tropical and temperate waters all around the world.
Often as tall as they are long when both their dorsal and ventral fins are extended, ocean sunfish are very flat and round and have a small beak-like mouth. While they are mostly found in warmer water where they ‘thermally recharge’, they then dive down deeper to prey on everything from crustaceans and jellyfish to small fish and squid.
Due to their striking size, ocean sunfish have very few natural predators with fishing being the main threat they face.
5. Giant oceanic manta ray
Reaching up to 23 feet and weighing 6,600 lb, the Giant oceanic manta ray is the largest species of its kind in all the world. Typically found in tropical, temperate, and subtropical waters, it makes for a majestic sight as it glides gracefully above shimmering shoals of fish and colorful coral reefs.
Much bigger on average than the reef manta ray, the large, flat fish with their triangular pectoral fins have a very widespread distribution. Traveling with the currents in search of nutrient-rich waters, the ocean-going species has been recorded as far north as California and New Jersey in the US and as far south as New Zealand and South Africa in the Southern Hemisphere.
Now sadly considered to be endangered due to overfishing, giant oceanic manta rays mainly feed on plankton and travel either alone or as part of a group.
4. Tiger shark
Another of the biggest fish to inhabit the oceans is the ferocious Tiger shark which is so named due to its distinctive dark stripes. At its largest, the solitary macropredator can attain a maximum length of 24 feet and weigh a humongous 3.11 tons.
While the near threatened species of requiem shark is widespread throughout tropical and temperate waters, particularly large populations have been recorded around isolated isles in the central Pacific Ocean. Despite its reputation as a ‘garbage eater’, it actually has the widest food spectrum of all as it eats not only seals, sea snakes, and squid but crustaceans, birds and dolphins too.
Often found closer to coasts, the nomadic, mostly nocturnal hunter’s aggressive and indiscriminate feeding style means that even horses, goats and dogs are fairly common snacks for tiger sharks.
3. Great white shark
Famed around the world for its fierce nature, the Great white shark is remarkably the world’s largest known macropredatory fish. While the average adult is a fair bit smaller, the largest specimen of the species on record weighed over 3.3 tons and stretched 23 feet in length.
Although the aggressive apex predator isn’t quite the deadly man-eater depicted in Jaws, a handful of unprovoked attacks do occur each year. Mostly, however, great whites prey on fish and cetaceans with seals, seabirds, and even some species of whales also featuring in their diet.
Located in the coastal surface waters of all major oceans, the cold killers have sharp, jagged teeth, powerful physiques and can swim up to high speeds of above 25mph.
2. Basking shark
Unlike its carnivorous cousin the great white, the huge Basking shark instead feasts exclusively on plankton. Thanks to the epic quantity of food they consume through filter feeding, their efficient use of energy and slow, passive lifestyle, they can grow up to 40.3 feet and weigh a colossal 18 tons.
One of only three plankton-eating sharks on Earth, the species is so named because it appears to be basking in the warm surface waters as it hoovers up zooplankton and invertebrates with its massive mouth. Found in all the temperate oceans, they migrate thousands of kilometers each season as they seek rich zooplankton patches.
Sadly listed as a vulnerable species, the basking shark has long been overfished with protected areas now being established in an attempt to boost their beleaguered populations.
1. Whale shark
Even bigger than the basking shark is the absolutely enormous Whale Shark which is impressively both the world’s largest known fish species and its largest nonmammalian vertebrate. So named due to its gigantic size and similar filter feeding system, it can reach up to 61.7 feet in length and weigh a simply staggering 21.5 tons in total.
Relatively widespread in warm, tropical waters, the slow-moving carpet shark inhabits both coastal and oceanic habitats with almost the entire population residing in the Indo-Pacific region. Very calm and docile creatures, they spend their days swimming about, using their large mouths to filter and feed on plankton and small fishes.
Although whale sharks are considered endangered, no robust estimates have been made about their global population with little still being known about their growth, longevity, and reproduction.