The basking shark is the second-biggest shark globally, only exceeded by the whale shark and, additionally, is one of the three planktivorous sharks. It is a “kind” shark for divers, despite its size and the great jaws that it boasts.
It belongs to the order Lamniformes, to the family Cetorhinidae, and the genus Cetorhinus.
Basking Shark Scientific Name
Aside from the name basking shark, which they’ve gained via their habit of floating softly around the ocean’s surface, these gigantic creatures are also known as bone sharks or elephant sharks. Their scientific name is Cetorhinus maximus. Cetorhinus is drawn from the Greek words meaning “sea monster” and “nose,” while Maximus indicates largest or most significant in size. Thus the Basking Shark is one of the largest fish in the world. The species is part of the Cetorhinidae family in the Chondrichthyes class.
What do basking sharks look like?
This shark species is one of the most readily identified by external appearance alone, owing to its significant size and distinguishing traits. The typical adult shark may stretch up to 26 feet long from snout to tail, with some individuals known to reach lengths of over 40 feet. Their huge stature is also complemented by equivalent bulk, with an average mass of around 8,500 pounds. Their color varies from a light brownish gray to almost black, with the possibility for mottled or pale skin.
Basking sharks have unique gills that virtually wrap their whole body. Their gills are equipped with gill rakers, which are filament-like growths along the gills that collect plankton from the water flowing through the openings. While their other physical attributes typically match other big shark species, such as the great white, they boast a crescent-shaped tail fin that offers another distinctive signature to differentiate them from their predatory relatives.
These sharks often keep their large jaws hanging wide open to enhance water intake while they leisurely swim or float with the tide. Their jaws are packed with dozens of rows of small hooked teeth that may number far into the thousands. Their movements and eating are typically passive, yet they may totally break the water’s surface and engage in more strenuous swimming when threatened.
Related: 10 odd sharks in the world.
What do basking sharks eat?
The basking shark only feeds on tiny organisms called zooplankton, which it captures by opening its mouth and letting water pour over its wide gill holes. Zooplankton in the water is subsequently captured in gill rakers coated with mucus.
Where do basking sharks live?
Geographically, the basking shark has a broad range that encompasses large parts of the Pacific and Atlantic seas. They prefer cold to moderate settings. Hence their coverage does not cover Arctic, Antarctica, or tropical areas. However, they may travel through tropical seas throughout their extended migratory paths that may range for thousands of kilometers. They are met throughout the west coast of North and South America and most of the European, Australian, and South African coastline.
Basking Shark Reproduction and Lifespan
Basking sharks frequently go into shallower coastal waters when they are ready to spawn, usually between May and July. Individuals may have different mates within a single breeding season. Aerial and direct observation by researchers suggests complicated courting and mating rituals between adult sharks. A mix of synchronized swimming, biting, and nudging may act as part of the ceremony.
Basking sharks can live for over 30 years in the wild, and some specialists say their longevity might reach up to 50 years. However, it takes an estimated 12 to 16 years for females to grow to the point where they can spawn. While knowledge about reproduction in this species is restricted to a few observations and specimens, experts assume that they have a gestation period of roughly three years and give birth to litters of around six pups.
Where are basking sharks found?
These sharks are widespread across the temperate seas of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Continental shelves and beaches are good homes for this enormous fish. They are commonly observed floating or slowly swimming near the water’s surface, which is a perfect spot to capture zooplankton.
Are Basking Sharks Dangerous?
Despite their massive size and intimidating look, basking sharks are not aggressive and are harmless to divers and snorkelers, much like whale sharks. And while they are enormous and sluggish, these sharks may breach, leaping totally out of the water.
Can a basking shark devour a human?
Since basking sharks are not predatory, there is minimal chance of swallowing a person or attacking them directly. However, the sharks have been known to behave viciously in reaction to assault or forcible human encroachment.
Are basking sharks friendly?
Basking sharks are exceedingly docile and seldom respond to people unless confronted directly. They often enable boats and divers to approach close distances, which makes them an intriguing marine attraction for visitors in certain places.
Basking shark conservation
Globally, basking shark populations are falling, and the species is considered endangered. Although basking sharks are also endangered in the northeast Atlantic, the current assessment has shown numbers to be steady.
In the past, basking sharks were caught chiefly for their liver oil and skin, flesh, and fins. The sharks were targeted throughout the UK until 1995 when the final basking shark fishery in British waters stopped.
Fishing this species has been prohibited in British waters since 1998 and in European Union seas (and by EU-registered boats globally) since 2007.
Today, these species are strictly protected, both in the UK and throughout most of their range abroad. But they are still hunted in specific locations – mainly in demand in parts of Asia for their enormous fins.
Basking sharks are also in danger of being bycatch (taken inadvertently while fishing for a different species), entangled in fishing gear, or being hit and perhaps killed by commercial or recreational vessels. Collisions are pretty regular in UK seas.
Scientists are worried about the damage microplastics could pose to basking sharks. The consequence of filtering microscopic plastic particles via their gill rakers and possible ingestion isn’t yet established. Climate change is another potential hazard since it has been proven to impact the distribution of their prey.
Monitoring, conservation, and study are crucial to maintaining the existence of these creatures. If you encounter any basking sharks, you can assist by reporting your sightings to the Shark Trust’s Basking Shark Project.
In December 2020, four areas were declared as Marine Protected Areas by the Scottish Government. In the Sea of the Hebrides, the biggest is the world’s first protected area for basking sharks.
Incredible Basking Shark Facts!
- Filtration experts: Their gigantic size and big mouth enable these sharks to filter hundreds of gallons of water per hour.
- Mouth agape: These sharks prefer to swim with their enormous mouth hanging wide open, which may terrify drivers who don’t know better.
- Sluggish breeders: These sharks are very slow in reproducing and may take up to 3 years to be born after conception.
- Breach potential: Unlike most sharks, basking sharks are known to jump entirely out of the water, much like whales.
Also Read: Can fish drown? How They Breathe.