Like any type of animal, different species of sharks are adapted to different environments, including temperatures.
We’re familiar with plenty of shark species that share coastal waters with our most beloved vacation beaches, and there are plenty more that we never see wandering about the cold ocean waters near the North and South Poles.
So let’s break it down:
Do sharks like cold water? Or do they prefer warmer environment?
Most types of sharks prefer warmer waters, including most of the famous species like tiger sharks, bull sharks, and hammerheads. However, there are plenty of species that are specifically adapted for colder polar climates, like Greenland sharks, Porbeagles, and more. Great White sharks, too, are often found in cold waters as they like to feed on seals and walruses, however they can comfortably live in warmer water as well.
Let’s look at more shark species and other factors that help determine whether sharks live in cold or warm water!
Why (Most) Sharks Prefer Warm Water
You’ll find more species of sharks in warmer waters as opposed to cold waters.
The first reason is because of their biology.
The vast majority of shark species are cold-blooded, and depend on the temperature of the surrounding water to regulate their own body temperature.
Even those sharks with endothermic capabilities (warm-blooded) tend to prefer warmer water simply because it’s more comfortable.
Excessively cold waters can go beyond discomfort for many sharks — outside of ideal living conditions at best, and leading to death at worst.
The second main reason why more sharks are found in warmer waters is simply a matter of the food chain.
While sharks can thrive in various water temperatures, not all marine animals and plants can – which is to say, the food that sharks depend on to survive.
Because of this, many common shark species spend more time in warmer waters, even if their bodies would function fine in cold water.
What Type of Sharks Live in Cold Water?
There are a few different factors that impact sharks’ preference for warm or cold water, and those reasons can change from species to species.
Many of the sharks we’re most familiar with tend to prefer warm water, but that doesn’t mean that sharks overall don’t exist in cold water.
In fact, there are a number of shark species that are specially adapted to thrive in frigid polar climates, like:
- Greenland sharks
- basking sharks
- and salmon sharks.
These species can do just fine in water temperatures that rarely climb more than a few degrees above freezing. In fact, these cold water sharks would be uncomfortable in the warm tropical waters we’re familiar with, and may even become stressed.
On the other end of the spectrum, the sharks we most often hear about are those that share coastal waters with some of our favorite beaches — which is to say, warm water, though some still spend time in the cold!
Take great white sharks, for example.
Great white sharks, a top predator, were long known to prefer colder water. Great whites are adapted to live comfortably in both cool and warm water, so body temperature isn’t an issue for them.
Food, however, is. Great whites feed on larger animals than other sharks, often those with lots of fatty tissue like seals and walruses that are more abundant in cooler climates, leading great whites to prefer colder water.
At least, that was the main school of thought until recent studies showed that Great whites actually spend more time than expected in warm water eddies.
In short, they like both!
Bull sharks, on the other hand, are more likely to avoid cold waters. In this case, these sharks are more comfortable in warm waters to regulate body temperature, but there’s also another essential reason bull sharks hover in warmer waters: they are one of the world’s only freshwater-adapted sharks, meaning they prefer to spend time near estuaries and river runoff close to the coast – and away from deep, cold currents.
Similarly, tiger sharks are known to greatly prefer warmer waters.
Research shows they spend the vast majority of their time active and hunting in warm waters, and very little time in cooler water.
In fact, climate change and ocean warming has dramatically changed their migration habits in recent years.
Many hammerhead species are the same, spending much of their time in warm subtropical waters and hunting for prey like squids, octopuses, and fish in nearby climates.
Are Sharks More Likely to Attack in Warm or Cold Water?
If you’re looking purely at statistics of “number of shark attacks in warm water,” you would think that shark bites and attacks are significantly more likely to occur in warm water than in cold water.
But you would be wrong.
Sharks are no more or less interested in humans in warm versus cold water, and you should always be cautious of your behavior if you’re in any area known to have sharks.
The higher numbers of shark bites in warm waters is simply a reflection of the higher numbers of humans in these areas as well – we tend to be drawn to warm beaches and tropical climates in much greater swarms than the number of tourists who venture to and swim in cold, sub-polar waters!
In warm waters, such as along tropical and subtropical coastlines, we’re told to be wary of sharks in higher numbers.
Some may think that this is directly related to increased shark attacks on humans, and while that’s technically not incorrect, it is much more related to the higher presence of fish, seals, and other animals that are shark food.
Humans are not, but spending time in these areas does put us in closer proximity and therefore at higher risk.
Can Sharks Freeze to Death?
Considering that sharks of various species can thrive in different water temperatures, it’s no wonder people often ask if sharks (and other marine animals) can freeze when ocean temperatures drop to just above freezing, like in the arctic.
Most shark species, particularly those we’re most familiar with like bull sharks, tiger sharks, and others that are found near vacation beaches, don’t tend to spend much time in extremely cold waters.
There are some species, however, that are specially adapted to these environments, like the Greenland shark. Sharks like this can do well in even the coldest water.
That being said, if water is anomalously cold for extended periods of time in any area, common sharks and even cold-adapted sharks can struggle to maintain body temperature.
Most sharks are cold-blooded, meaning they depend on the temperature around them to self-regulate, and if that temperature is too cold for too long it can cause damage – which is to say, frostbite, “cold shock,” or death.
Sharks can get frostbite just like us.
Their extremities (their fins, versus our fingers and toes), are particularly vulnerable. In extreme cases, sharks can even freeze in the water, leading to the not-so-pleasant term “sharksicle.”
These events are extremely rare, however, usually only occurring during anomalously cold climate events and weather patterns that lead to unusually cold water in a specific region.
Overall, the extent to which sharks like cold water depends on the species.
Some shark species are specially adapted to live in arctic climates and can function just fine in extremely cold waters just above freezing.
Other sharks could survive here, but greatly prefer warmer waters — not dissimilar to humans and our like of warm beaches!
Aside from purely biological function, sharks also spend their time where they can easily find food, which also varies from species to species, depending whether they hunt for cold-weather animals like seals warm-weather animals like fish and some squid!
For more on sharks, check out:
Hope this helps!