Do Sharks Migrate? (Why Some Do & Others Don’t)

Sharks are famous for their migratory patterns, with Great White and Tiger Sharks regularly making the news. 

So, do sharks migrate? The short answer is yes, some of them do. The more complicated answer is that sharks are diverse. Not all sharks migrate; some of them don’t migrate very far, and some of them spend nearly their entire lives moving from place to place. 

Why Do Sharks Migrate? 

Sharks migrate for a wide range of reasons.

In some cases, those reasons overlap. In others, it’s because they need something specific. And, in others, sharks change the reason they migrate throughout the year. 

Feeding

Most sharks eat a great deal. In fact, in zoos, sharks normally consume anywhere from 1-10% of their body weight a week. 

In comparison to people, who eat 3-4 pounds of food a day, that’s about the same by body weight. But for sharks, which can weigh anywhere from a few to over 15,000 lbs., that can add up to a lot of fish and marine life. 

So, sharks migrate up and down coasts, over migration routes, and along currents to ensure their hunting grounds stay fresh.

Those migration patterns often extend over 800-1,000 miles, and the shark may take a full year to make the circuit. 

That allows the fish schools they hunt plenty of time to recover and build population back up – meaning populations stay healthy and the shark has enough to eat for the long-term. 

Warm Water

Most sharks are cold-blooded. While roughly 5 species of shark have endothermic or warm-blooded properties, most are not. 

This means that when it gets too cold, sharks lose body heat. They get sluggish, lose vision, and their metabolism slows down. 

If they get too cold, the shark could lose so much muscle function it actually can’t breathe. 

For that reason, sharks tend to migrate to stay in warm water. In most cases, sharks need water to be at least 68 degrees to be comfortable. 

That’s also why sharks on the East Coast in the U.S. tend to migrate away between the end of August and the middle of September. Cooling waters mean they can no longer comfortably stay on the coast. 

Sharks migrating to warmer waters will normally start migrating as the water begins to cool. Then, when the waters start to warm up, they’ll migrate back. 

The tiger shark is an extremely well-known shark that migrates for this reason. These sharks migrate based on water temperature.

And, recent increases in water temperature during the summer have sent them further and further north each year

Mating 

Many types of sharks are solitary. This means that they swim and live alone for most of the year. This behavior allows the shark more access to food without competition. 

It also means that a shark can more easily feed itself without stripping the environment of food sources, as a large school of big sharks might. 

That’s why most big sharks like Great Whites are solitary. 

However, those sharks often school together for part of the year. Great whites and other big sharks often migrate to mating grounds.

Sometimes, that’s on a yearly basis. In other cases, it’s about once every 2-3 years. 

These mating sites are often set, and sharks return to them year after year, generation after generation.

For example, in 2022, researchers led an expedition in search of a Great White mating site off the Carolinas, hoping to learn more about these animals. 

Giving Birth 

Sharks do not take care of their young nor do they bond with them.

However, they do often migrate to specific birthing grounds. This gives the baby sharks the opportunity to grow in a sheltered and food-rich environment. 

For example, sandbar sharks travel to the Delaware Bay to give birth after mating. Of course, depending on the shark, the migration period will change dramatically. 

For example, most sharks are viviparous, meaning that they hatch an egg inside the womb, where the baby sharks live off of the placenta until a live birth happens.

Here, gestation periods can range from 7 months to well over 3 years. 

On the other hand, about 40% of sharks are oviparous. This means that they lay eggs and abandon them in the ocean to hatch.

These sharks will almost always seek out sheltered bays for eggs. Horn sharks, carpet sharks, nurse sharks, whale sharks, and cat sharks are common examples of this type of shark. 

While both migrate for slightly different reasons, many sharks migrate for giving birth or laying eggs. 


Do All Sharks Migrate? 

No, not all sharks migrate. In fact, many do not. 

Sharks are a very large and diverse group. In fact, with over 1,000 different species of shark, it would be weird if all sharks behaved in the same ways. 

Instead, shark species show three very distinct patterns of migration. These are broken into “Local sharks”, “coastal pelagic sharks” and “highly pelagic sharks”. 

Local Sharks

Local sharks are those that do not migrate at all. These normally live in shallow and warm waters, such as in the Caribbean. Nurse sharks and bonnetheads are two of the most common examples. 

For example, the Nurse sharks in the Exumas (Bahamas) are well-known for their year-round presence. These sharks stay in warm shallow water, where tourists can meet and go swimming with them. 

Often, these sharks are tropical or otherwise have access to large food sources, meaning they don’t have to migrate. 

Coastal Pelagic Sharks

Coastal pelagic sharks are migratory sharks that primarily stick to shallow water. These sharks normally migrate along a current or coast looking for food, with routes that can be as long as 1,000 miles. 

Coastal pelagic sharks are almost entirely motivated by finding food. However, they may also look for warmer waters as their area on the coast starts to cool down. 

Oceanic blacktip and tiger sharks are extremely common sharks in this subgroup. 

Highly Pelagic Sharks 

Highly pelagic sharks are those that exhibit high migratory behavior. These sharks can migrate thousands of miles, across oceanic borders, and often follow major ocean currents. 

The Great White shark, with its extreme migratory patterns, is the most famous shark in this group. However, others, like the Mako and Blue Shark often travel just as far. 


Where Do Sharks Migrate In The Winter?

Many sharks migrate to escape cold waters but where do they go? That often depends on the shark. For example, Great Whites around the U.S. often migrate to Florida or even the Carolinas. 

A 2009 study that fitted 25 basking sharks with trackers found that those sharks migrated significantly further south than expected.

In fact, many sharks migrated from Massachusetts where they were tagged all the way to Brazil.

That’s actually further than they’d have to go to reach warmer waters, leading scientists to speculate that eating, mating, and birthing habits are also involved.  


How Far Do Sharks Travel?

Depending on the shark, sharks may travel little more than a few miles of geographical distance a year.

Others, like the tiger shark, have been known to travel routes of 5,000 plus miles, which they might undertake multiple times per year. 

Tiger sharks and great white sharks are the two most well-known sharks to travel these kinds of distances.

Here, they migrate from the feeding grounds of California or Hawaii to the open ocean when food gets scarce, and sometimes to other coastal areas, and then back again. 

In most cases, sharks will travel and repeat the same routes or migration patterns again and again.

That’s why shark migration patterns are mapped, and scientists can often find the same sharks following the same routes year after year. 


Do Sharks Migrate In Groups? 

Most sharks will migrate in relative solitude. Others, like the hammerhead, are more social.

Great white sharks and tiger sharks can usually be found alone or in pairs. On the other hand, hammerheads and lemon sharks are often found in groups of 10-20+.

Sharks are diverse, which means their migration patterns are also diverse. However, sharks that live alone often migrate alone. 

Others, like basking sharks and nurse sharks which live in groups, are much more likely to mass migrate.

In addition, even solitary sharks often migrate to breeding grounds, where divers find large groups of those sharks in one place. That can lead to the impression that those sharks migrate in groups. 

Instead, they simply come to the same place, often in a very solitary fashion. 


Conclusion 

Sharks comprise a very large group of marine life, some of which migrate and some don’t. With some sharks migrating thousands of miles a year, some hundreds, and others not at all, sharks are as diverse as any other life on earth.

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