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There are over 400 species of sharks all over the world. However, only a handful of them are known to people. The great white shark is the most popular among them. This type of shark topped the list in a report in 2013 about shark-related Yahoo searches. Thanks to the shows and movies like Jaws which catapulted this shark species to fame.
Aside from the great white, the whale shark is another species familiar to most people. This species owns the distinction of being the biggest known fish. Other popular shark species include the tiger and hammerhead sharks.
Perhaps, one of the lesser known species is the basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus. Next to the great white, this is the second largest fish in the world. The average size for adults ranges from 6 to 8 metres, but some can grow up to 12 metres. It weighs between 3,000 to 6,000 kilograms.
According to reports, the largest basking shark ever recorded measured 12 metres. This was discovered in 1851. In 2014, a member of this shark species, with a length of about 8.8 metres, was found off the Hokkaido Coast.
Why Is It Called Basking Shark?
The basking shark was named as such because of its feeding habit. When it feeds, it typically stays at the ocean surface or upper layers of the water. It is as if it’s “basking” in the sunshine and warmth of the water. Initially, scientists thought that this fish stayed at the surface to absorb sunlight. This was debunked later on when it was discovered that the reason behind this habit was food.
Prior to earning its current name, it was referred to as “sunfish” in Ireland and Scotland. Eventually, the named had to be changed because another animal, the ocean sunfish, was also called “sunfish”. So, Thomas Pennant, a Welsh naturalist, replaced “sunfish” with “basking shark” to avoid the confusion. Pennant came up with the name because he thought what many scientists did – that this animal goes to the surface to soak up sun.
What Does a Basking Shark Eat?
Just like the whale and megamouth shark, the basking shark mainly eats planktons. Consisting of plants and animals, plankton is a collective term for tiny organisms that float in both marine and freshwater environments. Since they are too weak and small, planktons are unable to swim against the current and just go with the flow.
In certain places, these tiny organisms tend to congregate just below the water surface. This is believed to be one of the reasons why this type of shark “basks”.
A basking shark takes in food using a process called filter feeding. However, unlike other sharks that are filter feeders, the basking shark does not actively suck in water. What it does instead is that it keeps its mouth open while swimming to catch food.
The mouth of this so-called passive eater can be up to a metre wide. Moreover, it is capable of filtering up to 1,800 cubic metres of water in just an hour.
What Are Its Important Characteristics?
Due to its body shape, the basking shark is often mistaken for the great white shark. Both shark species have a torpedo-shaped body. However, the basking shark has gill slits which are longer and more visible, almost encircling the head, compared to those of the white shark.
Aside from its wide mouth, diminutive, hook-like teeth and prominent gills, it also possesses a conical snout. Moreover, it has large dorsal and pectoral fins which can measure up to 2 metres. Its body colour can be brown, grey or black with its dorsal side often having a lighter hue.
Despite its colossal size, this type of shark is capable of jumping out of the water. The exact reason why this shark breaches is unknown. Some scientists believe that it is done to remove parasites such as lamprey eels that are on their skin. Others think that this is a courtship behaviour which is meant to impress a potential mate.
While its massive size and hundreds of small teeth can make this shark look scary, the basking shark is actually referred to as a gentle giant. It is not an aggressive animal; it does not attack humans. However, when it breaches, it can cause small boats to capsize or damage them. This is why, those driving these vessels are advised to keep a good distance from sharks.
When it reaches a certain length (1.5-1.8 metres for males and 4 to 5 metres for females), a basking shark becomes sexually mature. In addition, this shark species is considered a relatively social animal. At times, it forms small groups which are sex-based. In some cases, these schools of sharks can have over 100 members. It is also not unusual for this shark to travel alone.
Is the Basking Shark Found in the UK?
The basking shark is known to inhabit all the world’s oceans and seas. However, it prefers cold and temperate waters. This shark is a migratory animal that travels several miles during the winter period. Some of them head to warmer waters where plankton blooms are happening. Meanwhile, others do so to reproduce.
The basking shark is found in the UK. It is a seasonal visitor. The best time to see this shark species is between May and October, when a significant number of them arrive in British Waters. If you want to see a basking shark in the UK, Lundy Island off the coast of Devon provides good spots for this activity. Aside from sharks, you may also see other marine animals like seals and dolphins here. Another recommended place for shark-watching is Land’s End which is located in western Cornwall.
What Threatens Basking Shark Population?
Due to its large size, it has no natural predators. However, for the past two decades, its population drastically declined because of overfishing. Currently, it is listed as a “vulnerable” species. It’s mainly hunted for its oil which is used as an ingredient for man-made silk, perfumes and lubricants. Its meat and fins are also valuable.
Today, various measures have been implemented in different countries, including the UK, to protect basking sharks. Fishing and killing them is illegal in the country. Conservation groups are also implementing projects to safeguard basking sharks such as teaching tourists and water users proper conduct so that sharks and other cetaceans do not get disturbed and harassed.
Basking Shark photo by jidanchaomian
Basking shark near the water’s surface by candiche
The distinctive mouth of the basking shark photo by yohancha
See basking sharks at Lundy Island photo by size4riggerboots