- Scientific name: Cetorhinus maximus
- Size: Typically 22-28ft and 9000lb, although can be larger.
- UK shore caught record: N/a
- IUCN Status: VU (Vulnerable)
- Distribution: Widespread distribution throughout most of the world’s temperate oceans.
- Feeds on: Plankton
- Description: Huge shark. Body is black or dark grey, occasionally with brownish tinge. Massive mouth appears toothless and gill slits are huge for filter feeding. Large pectoral, dorsal and tail fins. Snout is pointed and eyes are small.
The basking shark is the largest fish in UK waters, and the second biggest extant fish species in the world (after the whale shark). It can grow to over thirty feet in length and can weigh in excess of five and a half tons. The mouth can be over a metre wide, and does contain very small (but sharp) teeth. Basking sharks are found in the southern and northern hemisphere, but avoid the warm waters around the equator. Basking shark are migratory and are usually spotted in British waters in the summer, travelling to deeper waters in the winter.
Basking shark are not aggressive and often make no attempt to move away from boats or divers, meaning that people can easily observe them. In some areas this can provide a boost to tourism people can view basking sharks from a boat and divers can swim alongside this species.
Behaviour and Feeding
Basking sharks are one of the few shark species which filter feed on plankton. They cruise slowly through the sea, often at the surface, with their mouth wide open to filter plankton from the water. A large basking shark can process over one million litres of sea water per hour through the thousands of rakers in its gills. This behaviour gave the fish their name as people originally thought they were basking in the sun. Basking sharks are known to come close to land during the summer, and can sometimes be spotted from the shore, and have been known to come into estuaries and large harbours during calm weather. Many basking sharks will be solitary, but they have been spotted moving in pairs and occasionally groups containing over one hundred basking sharks have been observed moving as a shoal. Basking sharks come into shallower, inshore waters during warmer weather as plankton density in much higher in these areas during summer, as this footage taken in late May 2016 off the coast of Cornwall shows. It is thought that basking sharks take some form of hibernation in much deeper water in winter and feed little during this time, and shed their gill rakers and grow them again for the following summer. Although usually slow moving – travelling just two or three miles in an hour- basking sharks have occasionally been spotted breaching (jumping in such as way that their entire body, apart from the tail, is out of the water). The reason for this is unknown but one theory is that the basking sharks are trying to rid themselves of parasites such as lampreys.
Little is known about the breeding cycle of basking shark. Basking sharks are thought to need to be around ten years old before they can reproduce. Breeding takes place in summer with eggs develop inside of the female, with gestation taking up to three years. Young basking shark are between four and six feet in length when they are born. In 2018 new research was produced by an innovative tagging system for basking sharks which suggested that basking sharks may gather in Scottish waters to mate.
Basking sharks are now under threat and are classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). They were hunted for their flesh which, although not highly rated as food, is edible. The fins are also used for shark fin soup, and their massive liver is used to produce fish oil. The skin can also be made into leather and its bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine, although their is no independently verified medical evidence that basking shark bones have any medicinal qualities. Basking shark numbers are thought to be down 80% compared to 1950s levels due to hunting of this species. Harpooning was the main method of catching basking sharks, and incredibly the Canadian government had an eradication programme aimed at reducing basing shark numbers in the 1950s and 1960s due to the damage they did to nets in salmon fisheries. There are now conservation programmes across the world aiming at preserving, and eventually increasing basking shark numbers. This appears to be having some success, with 2015 proving to be one of the best ever years for spotting basking sharks along the west coast of Scotland.
Basking Shark – Mistaken for a Sea Monster
The washed up and decomposed carcasses of basking sharks have long been mistaken for sea serpents or used as evidence for the existence of sea creatures which are either extinct or have never existed. The picture above is from Harper’s Weekly from 24th October, 1868 and shows the carcass of a massive fish washed up near New York. Originally thought to be a sea monster or serpent it is now believed to have been a basking shark. The scale between the creature and people is accurate, although it is unknown why the artist added reptile-like rear legs. One theory is that the carcass was partially decomposed when it was washed up, and the artist used creative licence to add a massive dorsal fin, larger eye and simply guessed that the remains of the rear fins were once a pair of legs.
Another famous case of a discovered sea monster, now thought to be basking shark carcass is the Zuiyo-Maru case from 1977. In April of that year the Japanese fishing vessel the Zuiyo-Maru was trawling off the coast of New Zealand. On hauling the nets on board the fishermen were shocked to find a 33ft long, 4000lb carcass of what appeared to be a prehistoric sea monster. The remains of the creature were hoisted into the air for examination, but the captain refused to allow it to be taken back to shore, due to its size, smell and the fact that it would spoil the rest of the catch if it was put in the hold. However, one crew member took five photographs and some tissue samples before the carcass was dumped back into the sea. Once the photographs were made public a great deal of interest was generated, with many people believing the corpse was that of a plesiosaur – an aquatic dinosaur believed to have died out at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago. Several eminent Japanese scientists backed up this theory. Realising the potential importance of the carcass the trawler company instructed their crews to re-trawl the area where it had been dumped into the sea, but they were unable to recover it. However, the following year a team of Japanese scientists from the Tokyo University of Marine Science and and Technology carried out a report which cast serious doubt on the plesiosaur theory. They pointed out that the body was the same size and porportions of a basking shark, and that basking shark were known to decompose in such as way that the main body rots away leaving the pectoral and pelvic fins and upper head area, leaving a carcass which superficially looks like the remains of a plesiosaur. Today the Zuiyo-Maru case is widely thought to be explained by being the remains of a basking shark.