The Cetorhinus maximus, otherwise known as the basking shark, is an extremely large and mysterious fish. These sharks can grow to lengths of over 35 feet (10 meters), thus making them the second largest fish in the ocean; The first being the Whale Shark.
An Elusive Giant
Due to their immense size, you’d think that would would aid in our knowledge about them. Interestingly enough, however, there are many things about these sharks that we have absolutely no clue about. While we have made substantial advancements in our research, there are a few essentials that we are still a complete mystery.
What Makes The Basking Shark Unique?
The Basking Shark, or Cetorhinus maximus, is a very different species of shark. They are found in all of the world’s temperate oceans and are known as a cosmopolitan migratory species. Cosmopolitan migratory sharks swim near the surface to bask in the warmer waters and feed. Perhaps their most defining characteristics are their long gill slits that nearly encircle their entire heads and pointed snouts. They have a distinctive lunate caudal fin, lateral keels, and their dorsal fin tends to curl to one side when above the water’s surface.
The color of Basking Sharks can be highly variable dependent on the shark’s environment and condition. Typically, Basking Sharks are dark brown, black, or blue with white underbellies. Although the lifespan of the Basking Shark is unknown, scientists estimate Basking Sharks can live up to 50 years. At maturity they are about 15 to 20 feet (4.6 to 6 m) long, but have been known to grow up to 35 feet (10 m). They are the second largest fish in the ocean behind the Whale Shark and can weigh up to 4 tons (3.62 metric tons). Basking Sharks do not hibernate, but during winter they migrate to deeper waters to hunt zooplankton.
One of the things that we are sure of is their diet. Many people would assume that these gigantic sharks eat animals such as seals, other fish, or you know, whatever is in the vicinity. Well the truth of the matter is, thy have one main favorite food source: Zooplankton. Now for those of you who may not be familiar with zooplankton, they are tiny animals that can be found near the water’s surface. Although they are aquatic creatures, zooplankton are not the greatest swimmers, and they typically just coast along with the water’s currents. Based on the enormous size of this shark, it is very peculiar that they feast on tiny plankton, but that is the nature of the beast. If you look closely at the video above, you can actually see the shark catching zooplankton in its mouth.
Basking Shark Encounter!
If you happen to come in contact with a massive shark, and its size isn’t a big enough to give away whether it’s a basking shark or not, here are a few physical characteristics that these sharks are known for. The mouth of a basking shark is very recognizable. Their mouths are tremendously large; they can be well over 3 ft (1 m) in width! With a shark this size, one would probably expect them to have long, pointy teeth similar to those of a Great White or Tiger Shark. On the contrary, they have several rows of many diminutive teeth. The large size of their mouths, and the small size of their teeth directly coincide with the shark’s unexpected diet. In order to eat, basking sharks keep their mouths open while they swim, and sift the plankton out of the water.
Basking sharks thrive in water that ranges from warm to cool in temperature. In addition, they prefer to swim close to the shore and also enjoy swimming near the water’s surface. In fact, they like being near the surface so much, that “sun fish” is their nickname. These sharks often travel through the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Sea of Japan, near New Zealand, and Southern Australia. They can also be easily spotted near the coastline of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. At time, they can be found in groups of about 100, but they are also known for traveling alone.
If you happen to be visiting any of these places and you see an enormous fish with its 3 ft (1 m) wide mouth hanging open, it may just very well be a basking shark. Don’t worry; they prefer the taste and nutritional benefits of plankton, so lucky you (not so lucky for the plankton though)!
Now you may be wondering how a handless and fingerless fish can separate plankton from the water it engulfs. This process is an interesting one that involves another important physical characteristic; gill rakers are necessary for the shark’s feeding process. Gill rakers are very long, and they are solely responsible for filtering the plankton out of the water. The excess water is then ejected out of the body through the shark’s gill slits. Gill rakers put in so much work, that they are replaced annually; they are discarded during the winter months, and new ones sprout in the spring.
Basking Sharks Predators
Perhaps given their large size, Basking Sharks have few known predators. Lampreys and Cookie Cutter Sharks are believed to attack Basking Sharks, although they are little match for these large creatures. White Sharks and Killer Whales may feed on them as they have been observed feeding on Basking Shark remains.
Basking Sharks Inspire Myths
Basking Sharks provided the foundation for scores of sea monster tales. They’ve also provided much to study in the realm of cryptozoology. Many of the Globsters, Sea Serpents, and Plesiosaurs found decomposing on beaches have turned out to be Basking Sharks. They are also mistaken for massive Great White Sharks, so they feed the myth that Megalodon may still be roaming our seas.
Basking Sharks Are In Danger From Humans
Basking Sharks are harmless to humans. However, they have been an important catch for centuries due to their various commercial uses. Basking Sharks are a source of food, their skin provides hide for leather, they are used in animal feed, and are prized for their large liver for producing shark liver oil. They are also hunted for their fins and cartilage.
Basking Shark fins are among the most valued and most expensive seafood products in the fishing industry. Although banned in many places, shark finning, which refers to cutting the shark fins and discarding the body back into the ocean, persists today. Without their fins, sharks cannot swim properly, and they will suffocate as they sink to the bottom of the seafloor. Although the Basking Shark has been protected from fishing in some territorial waters, they sometimes fall victim to fishing practices and illegal shark finning.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species designated the Basking Shark as a vulnerable species, meaning they face a high risk of endangerment in the wild. Due to finning and accidental bycatch fishing by humans, their slow reproductive rate and long maturation time, they are facing possible extinction. So many groups are fighting for more protections for the species.
Basking Sharks are truly a different species of shark. As large, docile filter-feeders, that resemble Great Whites, they highlight the diversity of sharks even within subclasses. Though they have inspired countless myths, Basking Sharks are under constant threat from humans. So it is imperative to learn about these beautiful creatures, so we can work to protect them.