A crypto whale refers to a single wallet address that holds a significant amount of cryptocurrency relative to the total circulating supply. While the nature of blockchain is pseudonymous, these whales can be traced back to their wallet address’s public key.
Investopedia has it that once a holder owns at least 10 percent of a given cryptocurrency, they can be considered a whale, while others deem whale status to wallets that hold upwards of $10 million in a single asset or a minimum of 1,000 BTC. Whales are closely monitored, or “whale watched,” by other shareholders since their portion of funds can sway or even manipulate currency valuations — and the crypto ocean is full of them.
Looking at Bitcoin, the top 107 wallets, identified as those holding more than 10,000 BTC, own 15.37 percent of total shares. The top four accounts — those holding more than 100,000 BTC — own 3.47 percent, according to crypto data aggregator BitInfoCharts at the time of writing.
What Is a Crypto Whale?
A crypto whale refers to an entity — either an individual, institution or exchange — that holds a large concentration of a given cryptocurrency.
Why Do Crypto Whales Matter?
Crypto whales are the biggest players in decentralized finance. As such, any move they make creates waves in a virtual currency market, where value is fixed to a coin’s supply and demand. Simply due to their sizable wallets, whales can single-handedly influence entire valuations of a specific cryptocurrency with one transaction.
“Crypto markets are generally quite thin, meaning that sales or purchases of bigger amounts can shift prices significantly higher or lower ... Therefore, the trading actions of such whales are followed with interest in order to try to predict price moves.”
Whales tend to trade in millions of dollars, which often directly lead to price swings and market turns. When whales buy into an asset, this signals a growing demand of that specific coin to the crypto community, who tend to follow suit. When a whale sells or “dumps,” a large portion of its holdings, price volatility follows in its wake.
“Crypto markets are generally quite thin, meaning that sales or purchases of bigger amounts can shift prices significantly higher or lower,” said Lars Seier Christensen, chairman of privacy-first blockchain Concordium and founder of online trading platform Saxo Bank. “Therefore, the trading actions of such whales are followed with interest in order to try to predict price moves.”
Crypto Whales Can Signal a Market Upswing
Crypto whales sway the market in a similar way to a large owner of shares in a company, said Winston Robson, co-founder and CEO of metaverse marketplace WeMeta.
Take for example, Elon Musk and his tweets. After the SpaceX founder added “#bitcoin” to his Twitter bio, Bitcoin’s valuation swelled by 14 percent in January 2021. It was the first time that the total market value of all cryptocurrencies breached $1 trillion, Reuters reported.
“Whales hold a significant proportion of a given cryptocurrency’s total supply, so often they are quite enthusiastic and loyal to their preferred crypto choice,” Christensen added. “Whales can be a supporting factor, if they hold on to their large positions instead of selling.”
Crypto Whales Can Signal a Market Downturn
Last year’s downfall of centralized cryptocurrency exchange FTX may serve as a prime example. Although rumors claimed Sam Fried-Bankman’s project may be insolvent, it wasn’t until Binance, a rival cryptocurrency exchange and known crypto whale of the asset, announced its plans to exit that led to FTX’s collapse.
Binance liquidated its holdings — estimated at 5 percent of the total supply, or $580 million at the time — on November 6. Five days later, FTX filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as Bankman-Fried stepped down as CEO.
Crypto Whales Can Affect Decentralization
On the other hand, whales may be a threat to a central pillar of crypto — decentralization.
“Most blockchains are governed by their token holders, and influence on the decisions is most often correlated to the size of one’s stake,” Christensen said. “Hence, the more concentrations of big holdings, the less decentralized the decision making supporting a project may be.”
This influence extends to a project’s overall direction, as deliberated amongst the communities that run them: decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs.
“Crypto whales matter because they have a substantial and authoritative voice when it comes to DAO voting or community direction,” Robson said. “Some DAO votes have been 80 percent against and 20 percent for, but when a whale cast their vote it flipped to 96 percent for and 4 percent against.”
Crypto Whales Can Impact Liquidity
In terms of liquidity, if a whale sits on a large sum without any movement, it can hurt a cryptocurrency, as the total supply of most tokens is capped at a certain amount. With the concentration of coins locked in one wallet, smaller traders and investors are limited to the remaining, circulating tokens.
In an effort to keep their transaction activity off the radar, whales looking to sell their assets may do so in smaller batches over an extended period of time to prevent steep market distortions. Alternatively, they may also turn to a tactic external to regular exchanges known as over-the-counter trading. This allows whales to buy and sell crypto to each other using a transaction method that privately processes transactions off of a blockchain’s mainnet.
Crypto Whale Examples
Blockchain’s component of transparency — documenting every transaction on a publicly accessible ledger, therefore successfully cutting out the middleman — is what makes it work. Users are both equally exposed and hidden behind a string of alphanumeric characters, known as a public key.
Who Are the Biggest Crypto Whales?
- Satoshi Nakamoto
- Brian Armstrong
- Michael Saylor
- Chris Larsen
- Changpeng Zhao
- Tim Draper
This dynamic creates a sort of pseudonymity, where crypto holders can be recognized without having their true identity known. Still, crypto community members have theories on who’s who in the whale pod.
The following list, which sources from CryptoSlate and the Bankless Times, compiles the top wallets linked to individuals, excluding known private or public companies as well as governments:
- Satoshi Nakamoto: Inventor of Bitcoin, Nakamoto leads the pod of crypto whales, holding one million BTC, or around $21 billion at the time of writing. To this day, no one can confirm whether this alias, pulled from Bitcoin’s white paper, belongs to just one person or a group of people.
- Brian Armstrong: The CEO of Coinbase, one of the largest crypto exchanges on the market, saw his personal net worth decline by 75 percent, ending the year at $1.5 billion, according to CryptoSlate. Still, he disclosed that his company was in ownership of 2 million BTC, totaling $42.7 billion at the time of writing, in a November tweet.
- Michael Saylor: The executive chairman and a co-founder of MicroStrategy, an enterprise analytics platform, reported his crypto standings in a tweet, amounting 17,732 BTC. If Saylor has held onto his tokens, that amount would convert to $378 million at the time of writing.
- Chris Larsen: Co-founder of several Silicon Valley tech startups, Larsen is best known to the crypto community for his 2012 contribution Ripple, a payment settlement system and currency exchange network that operates at a low cost. Without Larsen’s personal confirmation, it is estimated that the entrepreneur’s 17 percent stake in Ripple translates to at least 5.19 billion XRP. At today’s rates, that would come out to about $2 billion.
- Changpeng Zhao: The CEO of Binance is a known crypto whale who holds 95 percent of his wealth as Binance coin and Bitcoin. He has been hit hard by the crypto crash, seeing his net worth, estimated at $65 billion in March, fall to just $4.5 billion in December.
- Tim Draper: When the U.S. government seized billions in Bitcoin from fraudsters that operated on a darknet black market known as the Silk Road, this venture capitalist bought 30,000 BTC at a bargain price in the market dip that followed. That amount converts to $641 million today. Draper is also known to have investments in other crypto assets, such as Aragon’s ANT tokens.
What Is Crypto Whale Tracking?
“Crypto whale tracking is when people watch the activities of big holders of a particular crypto to try to predict price movements or understand the market sentiment,” said Daniele Servadei, CEO and co-founder of Sellix, a crypto-compatible e-commerce payment processor.
These accounts are closely monitored by the crypto community at large due to their heavy sway on the market. In fact, online trackers like Whale Alert broadcast transactions from top accounts in real time directly on its site and via its associated twitter account.
“The purpose is general interest for some ... but certainly also with a hope of predicting short-term price moves of the involved tokens.”
“Investors may whale watch to inform their own strategies or to better understand the market,” Servadei said. Whale trends to note include buying, selling or a move in assets from their original wallet or exchange.
Christensen described a mirroring effect that smaller holders, nicknamed crypto minnows, may emulate as part of their trading practice, to accrue profit or avoid potential loss.
“Due to the transparency of the blockchains, it is of interest when a big holder is active in the market,” he said. “This can be tracked quite easily, and hence investors follow both actual transactions as well as movements in and out of exchanges, which may indicate an upcoming trading intention of a whale.”
“The purpose is general interest for some,” he added, “but certainly also with a hope of predicting short-term price moves of the involved tokens.”