The global biodiversity of some taxonomic groups is poorly described, but thought to be decreasing rapidly. Surprisingly, this holds for a group of the world's most iconic large-bodied animals: sharks. Our analysis shows rapid and steep contemporary population declines in sharks coinciding with an increasing rate in species discovery. Larger sharks occupying lower trophic positions with wide geographic distributions (latitudinal ranges) found in shallow waters tend to be discovered first. In light of this increasing trend in species discovery and a cumulative description record far from reaching an asymptote, models cannot predict the global number of sharks. Our results highlight that while our knowledge of shark diversity improves at an accelerating rate, this diversity is under threat and declining rapidly; most shark species are vulnerable to declines, especially smaller-bodied sharks. This surprising finding may relate to mesopredator declines following periods of rapid expansion due to the demise of large sharks (apex predators). Furthermore, shark population declines are structured by phylogeny and, to a lesser extent, geography. Decline in sharks are likely to influence other species as well, e.g. via trophic cascades. The net result may be a greater loss of biodiversity in the oceans and could potentially explain why fewer extinction events are observed than predicted by models. Likewise, it is not inconceivable that species may be lost prior to their discovery.