It is one of the most incredible and awe-inspiring sights in the natural world... An impossibly huge shark leaping from the surface of the ocean... drips of water sliding down over the smooth, muscular body, as the gnashing jaws chomp down on a seal. These jumping sharks - great whites (Carcharodon carcharias) - have become world famous thanks to endless documentaries capturing their amazing leaps on film. But did you know that there are other species of sharks that jump? Some even higher than white sharks! Even some rays also spring from the water! So who jumps? Why do they jump? And do we even know why?
The Great and the Good
Jumping white sharks are undeniably one of the most phenomenal natural wonders you could ever behold. Witnessing a great white leap from the water whilst predating on a seal is one of my most treasured memories and one of the reasons I was first inspired to go into shark science. If you want to learn more about jumping great whites, check out Pretty Fly for a White Shark.
Yet jumping from the water (also known as "breaching") has actually been documented in several different species of sharks and rays - from bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) to manta rays (Mobula species) to stingrays (Order Myliobatiformes) (Curtis & Macesic, 2011).
Shortfin mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus) are the obvious place to start, as they are the highest jumping sharks in the world! Where great whites can only top out around 3 metres (aka 10 feet) from the surface of the water, makos are able to hit heights of 9 metres (almost 30 feet)! (Curtis & Macesic, 2011).
In fact white sharks aren't even second! They are also beaten out by thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus), which can reach dizzying heights 6 metres (20 feet)! (Curtis & Macesic, 2011).
Others suggest they might jump for a similar reason to white sharks - for hunting. White sharks swim below their prey and attack vertically at the surface, so their target is not able to see them coming. It's possible makos use a similar strategy, with their incredible speeds - as fast as 30 miles an hour - causing them to launch out of the water as they hit their prey at the waters surface (Klimley et al, 2001).
You Spin Me Right Round
Spinner sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna) perform especially impressive mid-air manoeuvres - spinning themselves around as they leap from the water at heights up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) (Curtis & Macesic, 2011; Rudd, 2020).
Scientists think that it is their hunting method which causes these aptly-named sharks to rotate in this way. Spinner sharks will swim very quickly through a dense shoal of fish and (like makos and great whites) they do not bother to hit the brakes as they near the surface. Because they twist their head back and forth, snapping furiously from left to right as they go, the motion will cause them to turn and spin as they launch into the air (Curtis & Macesic, 2011; Rudd, 2020).
Blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus) and thresher also sometimes spin when they breach. Scientists are not completely sure why, but it may be to communicate with other sharks, to dislodge parasites, or simply for fun! (Curtis & Macesic, 2011; Rudd, 2020).
Basking in Glory
One species of shark that many people are shocked to learn can jump is the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus). These gentle giants are filter-feeders, so unlike their more active and agile cousins, these sharks have no need to put on great bursts of speed when they are hunting (Johnston et al, 2018).
Yet, these sharks do breach - reaching speeds equal to those of great whites (5 metres per second) and they sometimes even jump multiple times in a row (Gore et al, 2019).
Scientists studying these animals think basking sharks might use breaching to find a mate. As landing from these jumps makes a loud sound, it's possible these breaches allow basking sharks to announce their search for a partner over a long range or the jumps might be used as a "courtship display" to impress a member of he opposite sex (Gore et al, 2019; Rudd, 2020). To learn more you can head over to Spinning Around.
Researchers have wondered whether great white use their jumps in a similar way - utilising the sound from their crash landings as a type of "social communication" (Klimley et al, 2001).
Into the Breach
But it is not only sharks that can jump! Their ray cousins also get in on the action - spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari), pelagic stingrays (Pteroplatytrygon violacea) and southern stingrays (Hypanus americanus) all regularly perform some beautiful aerial displays! Cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) and bluntnose stingrays (Hypanus say) also jump, but somewhet less regularly (MacGlennon, 2008; Medeiros et al, 2021).
Small species of rays often jump out of the water to confuse predators as they are evading an attack. In some species the jumps are related to breeding - with some females leaping out of the water to avoid unwanted male attention during mating season and females of other species actually performing jumps to help to suck their young out of them whilst they are giving birth! (MacGlennon, 2008; Medeiros et al, 2021).
Larger rays breach too. In fact, their leaps are so iconic that the manta rays are often known as 'flying rays' because so many species in the Mobula Genus breach in such spectacular fashion. For instance, giant oceanic manta rays (Mobula birostris) regularly launch their entire bodies out of the water - an incredible sight considering they weigh 1000kg and have a 500 cm wing span! (MacGlennon, 2008; Medeiros et al, 2021).
We aren't completely certain what is going on, but experts think mantas might jump to communicate with other rays. It may be a way to attract "conspecifics" (other manta rays) closer together, so they can hunt as a group. It is also possible they breach to attract a mate (MacGlennon, 2008; Medeiros et al, 2021).
Jumping for Joy
Whether sharks and rays jump to dislodge parasites, to communicate with each other, to find a mate, as a hunting strategy, as a way to avoid becoming a meal themselves, or simply just for fun (or a combination of all of these!), there is no doubt that seeing these amazing animals perform these leaps is something truly wonderful to behold. I for one hope I will have the honour of witnessing some (or all!) of these fantastic species jumping around in the wild - I would almost certainly jump for joy myself if I did!
Curtis TH & Macesic LJ (2011). Observations of breaching behavior in juvenile Bull Sharks, Carcharhinus leucas. Florida Scientist, 253-257. Access online.
Gore M, Abels L, Wasik S, Saddler L & Ormond R (2019). Are close-following and breaching behaviours by basking sharks at aggregation sites related to courtship?. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 99:3, 681-693. Access online.
Johnston EM, Halsey LG, Payne NL, Kock AA, Iosilevskii G, Whelan B & Houghton JD (2018). Latent power of basking sharks revealed by exceptional breaching events. Biology Letters, 14:9, 20180537. Access online.
Klimley AP, Le Boeuf BJ, Cantara KM, Richert JE, Davis SF, Van Sommeran S & Kelly JT (2001). The hunting strategy of white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) near a seal colony. Marine Biology, 138, 617-636. Access online.
MacGlennon G (2008). Social Structure and Behaviour of the Manta Ray (Manta birostris) in the Republic of the Maldives. Doctoral dissertation, Bangor University. Access online.
Medeiros AM, Ari C & Monteiro-Filho ELA (2021). Environmental factors involved in breaching behavior of manta rays in estuarine waters. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 674, 203-219. Access online.
Rudd JL (2020). ‘Fantastic breaches and where to find them: first insights into basking shark breaching behaviour’. In: The role of accelerometry in the conservation of two coastal marine vertebrates. Masters degree thesis, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK, pp. 24- 58. Access online.