The snout is rather short, broad, and rounded, without prominent flaps of skin beside the nostrils. The eyes are large and circular, with nictitating membranes (protective third eyelids). There are 11–13 tooth rows in either half of both jaws. The teeth have broad bases, serrated edges, and narrow cusps; the front 2–4 teeth on each side are erect and the others increasingly oblique. The five pairs of gill slits are moderately long, with the third gill slit over the origin of the pectoral fins. The first dorsal fin is high and falcate (sickle-shaped). There is a low interdorsal ridge running behind it to the second dorsal fin, which is relatively large with a short free rear tip. The origin of the first dorsal fin lies over or slightly forward of the free rear tips of the pectoral fins, and that of the second dorsal fin lies over or slightly forward of the anal fin. The pectoral fins are long and narrow, tapering to a point. The dermal denticles are closely spaced and overlapping, each with five (sometimes seven in large individuals) horizontal low ridges leading to marginal teeth.
In older literature, the scientific name of this species was often given as C. menisorrah. The blacktail reef shark (C. wheeleri), native to the western Indian Ocean, is now regarded as the same species as the grey reef shark by most authors. It was originally distinguished from the grey reef shark by a white tip on the first dorsal fin, a shorter snout, and one fewer upper tooth row on each side. Based on morphological characters, vertebral counts, and tooth shapes, Garrick (1982) concluded the grey reef shark is most closely related to the silvertip shark (C. albimarginatus). This interpretation was supported by a 1992 allozyme phylogenetic analysis by Lavery.
Ancient reefs buried within stratigraphic sections are of considerable interest to geologists because they provide paleo-environmental information about the location in Earth's history. In addition, reef structures within a sequence of sedimentary rocks provide a discontinuity which may serve as a trap or conduit for fossil fuels or mineralizing fluids to form petroleum or ore deposits.