This species is commonly found in shallow waters on and near coral reefs and occasionally in brackish waters. Juveniles are typically found in extremely shallow water (±15 to 100 cm) inside lagoons, often swimming along the shoreline; adults typically occur on shallow parts of the forereef, often moving over the reef crest and onto the reef flat at flood tide. Individual adults inhabit a relatively small home range of ±2.5 km2 and appear to reside close to their home reef but occasionally cross deepwater channels between adjacent reefs.
The Caribbean reef shark occurs throughout the tropical western Atlantic Ocean, from North Carolina in the north to Brazil in the south, including Bermuda, the northern Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. However, it is extremely rare north of the Florida Keys. It prefers shallow waters on or around coral reefs, and is commonly found near the drop-offs at the reefs' outer edges. This shark is most common in water shallower than 30 m (98 ft), but has been known to dive to 378 m (1,240 ft).
Dutch ichthyologist Pieter Bleeker first described the grey reef shark in 1856 as Carcharias (Prionodon) amblyrhynchos, in the scientific journal Natuurkundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch-Indië. Later authors moved this species to the genus Carcharhinus. The type specimen was a 1.5 metres (4.9 ft)-long female from the Java Sea. Other common names used for this shark around the world include black-vee whaler, bronze whaler, Fowler's whaler shark, graceful shark, graceful whaler shark, grey shark, grey whaler shark, longnose blacktail shark, school shark, and shortnose blacktail shark. Some of these names are also applied to other species.
The "hunch" threat display of the grey reef shark is the most pronounced and well-known agonistic display (a display directed towards competitors or threats) of any shark. Investigations of this behavior have been focused on the reaction of sharks to approaching divers, some of which have culminated in attacks. The display consists of the shark raising its snout, dropping its pectoral fins, arching its back, and curving its body laterally. While holding this posture, the shark swims with a stiff, exaggerated side-to-side motion, sometimes combined with rolls or figure-8 loops. The intensity of the display increases if the shark is more closely approached or if obstacles are blocking its escape routes, such as landmarks or other sharks. If the diver persists, the shark will either retreat or launch a rapid open-mouthed attack, slashing with its upper teeth.
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.