Whale shark


Sharks are found all around Sri Lanka throughout the year. They are distributed from lagoons and estuaries to the depths of the open ocean (up to about 2,000m). A few are also found in rivers. Each species has its own geographic and depth distribution. Some species migrate regularly or are occassional visitors.


At least 61 species from 20 families and 6 orders are known to occur in Sri Lankan waters. Of these 30% are regularly seen, 30% are occassionaly seen and the balance 40% are uncommon or rare.


Contrary to popular belief, only a few sharks are dangerous to humans. Sharks are much more likely to be killed by humans than the other way around. Very few shark attacks have been recorded in Sri Lanka and are not well understood. See a list of shark attacks.


In recent years, shark conservation and management around the world has taken the form of finning bans, fishing regulations and sharks fin trade bans. More than a dozen countries including the Maldive Islands have banned shark fishing since the beginning of this century.


In Sri Lanka no person shall catch thresher shark species, of the family Alopiidae and that all sharks landed must have their fins attached (shark fins alone cannot be brought ashore). As of October 2016, the whale shark and Oceanic whitetip shark (protected under CITES Appendix II) have been added to the protected species in Sri Lanka. Shark conservation in Sri Lanka has just started to make its mark but has yet a long way to go to catch up with the Maldives.

Why protect sharks in Sri Lanka


  • Sharks are apex predators in our ocean near the top of the marine food chain and help regulate populations of species in the ecosystem.

  • Their slow growth to reach maturity and reproduce relatively few pups within a relative short lifespan makes them susceptible to overexploitation.

  • They are important to the economic survival of the fishing industry.

  • Whale sharks and reef sharks have the potential to attract large numbers of tourists each year amounting to several millions of dollars in foreign earnings. A better income generating alternative to shark finning and liver oil extraction.

  • Besides the Maldives, Sri Lanka should join and support international conservation and protection of sharks because they traverse geographic and international boundaries and interbreed during their lifespan.

Regrettably, the popular image of a shark is that of a cruel and mindless creature whose only purpose in life is to kill and eat humans. Although nothing can be further from the truth ......


– Rex I. De Silva

Author & Biologist, 2015

Discovering Sharks


Evidence of sharks dates back more than 420 million years ago to the Ordovician period before land animals existed. Modern sharks began to appear about 100 million years ago. Sharks and rays belonging to the Sub-class Elasmobranchii are organized in two infraclasses of which all sharks are all included in Selachii.


Sharks are a group of fish that have skeletons made of cartilage unlike bony fish, five to seven gill slits on either side of their head and pectoral fins (flippers) that are not fused to the head. The upper edges of the orbits are free from the eyeballs, so that they form free eyelids. They have multiple rows of teeth, and any losses of teeth are replaced by new growth. Shark lifespans vary by species. Most shark species live 20 to 30 years but the whale shark has a long lifespan and may live over 100 years.

  • Consumer demand for shark fins, meat and liver oil.

  • Over-fishing resulting in a population disappearance.

  • Illegal fishing practices (eg. dynamiting, "Leila" nets).

  • Fisheries bycatch (long line & net entanglement).

  • Habitat reduction due to increasing human activities.

  • Catch and bycatch of protected thresher shark species.

Further reading:

Whale shark Kalpitiya Sri Lanka
Whale shark.
Identifying Sharks


Identifying a shark often comes down to a process of elimination. Location, habitat and the family to which the species belongs (more easily identified than the species itself) are important factors in this process. Remember that one physical feature is rarely enough for a positive identification.


In identifying sharks, there are a number of factors to consider as depicted in the shark ID chart. Use this shark ID chart as an aid to eliminate groups. Gather as much information as possible before coming to any conclusions.

Tabulated below is a checklist of over 60 sharks that may be found in Sri Lankan waters.

Legend - Status:  XX = rare, X = uncommon, √ = occassional, √√ = frequent, # = unconfirmed.

> = Protected by Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act.

Sri Lanka Shark Identification Chart

Shark ID Chart

Shark Species