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The basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, is the second largest living shark, after the whale shark. It is a cosmopolitan species — it is found in all the world's temperate oceans. It is a slow moving and generally harmless filter feeder.


This shark is called the basking shark because it is most often observed when feeding at the surface and appears to be basking. It is the only member of the family Cetorhinidae. It was first described and named Cetorhinus maximus by Gunnerus in 1765 from a specimen found in Norwaymarker. The genus name Cetorhinus comes from the Greek, ketos which means marine monster or whale and rhinos meaning nose, the species name maximus is from Latin and means "greatest". It was later described as Squalus isodus by Macri in 1819, Squalus elephas by Lesueur in 1822, Squalus rashleighanus by Couch in 1838, Squalus cetaceus by Gronow in 1854, Cetorhinus blainvillei by Capello in 1869, Selachus pennantii by Cornish in 1885, Cetorhinus maximus infanuncula by Deinse & Adriani 1953, and finally as Cetorhinus maximus normani by Siccardi 1961.

Distribution and habitat

The basking shark is a coastal-pelagic shark found worldwide in boreal to warm-temperate waters around the continental shelves. It has traditionally been observed in waters between 8 and 14° C (46 and 57° F) but recently they have been confirmed to cross the equator. It is often seen close to land and will enter enclosed bays. The shark will follow concentrations of plankton in the water column and is therefore often visible on the surface. They are a highly migratory species leading to seasonal appearances in certain areas of the range. The basking shark is found from the surface down to at least .

Anatomy and appearance

The basking shark is one of the largest known sharks, second only to the whale shark. The largest specimen accurately measured was trapped in a herring net in the Bay of Fundymarker, Canadamarker in 1851. Its total length was , and it weighed an estimated 19 tons. There are reports from Norwaymarker of three basking sharks over 12 m (the largest being 13.7 m), but those are considered dubious since few if any sharks anywhere near such size have been caught in the area since. Normally the basking shark reaches a length of between and a little over . Some specimens surpass 9 or even , but after years of hard fishing, specimens of this size have become exceedingly rare.

Male basking shark

These sharks possess the typical lamniform body plan and have been mistaken for great white sharks. The two species can be easily distinguished, however, by the basking shark's cavernous jaw (up to 1 m in width, held wide open whilst feeding), longer and more obvious gill slits (which nearly encircle the head and are accompanied by well-developed gill rakers), smaller eyes, and smaller average girth. Great white sharks possess large, dagger-like teeth, whilst those of the basking shark are much smaller (5–6 mm) and hooked; only the first 3 or 4 rows of the upper jaw and 6 or 7 rows of the lower jaw are functional. There are also several behavioural differences between the two (see Behaviour).

Other distinctive characteristics of the basking shark include a strongly keeled caudal peduncle, highly textured skin covered in placoid scales and a layer of mucus, a pointed snout (which is distinctly hooked in younger specimens), and a lunate caudal fin. In large individuals the dorsal fin may flop over when above the surface. Colouration is highly variable (and likely dependent on observation conditions and the condition of the animal itself): commonly, the colouring is dark brown to black or blue dorsally fading to a dull white ventrally. The sharks are often noticeably scarred, possibly through encounters with lampreys or cookiecutter sharks. The basking shark's liver, which may account for 25% of its body weight, runs the entire length of the abdominal cavity and is thought to play a role in buoyancy regulation and long-term energy storage.

In females, only the right ovary appears to be functional.


The basking shark is a passive filter feeder, filtering zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates from up to 2,000 tons of water per hour. Unlike the megamouth shark and whale shark, the basking shark does not appear to actively seek its quarry, but it does possess large olfactory bulbs that may guide it in the right direction. Unlike the other large filter feeders, it relies only on the water that is pushed through the gills by swimming; the megamouth shark and whale shark can suck or pump water through their gills.


Head of a basking shark.
Studies in 2003 have disproved the idea that basking sharks hibernate and have shown that they are active throughout the year. In winter, basking sharks move to deeper water (depths of up to 900 m) feeding on deep water plankton. Satellite tagging confirmed that basking sharks move thousands of kilometres during the winter months locating plankton blooms.

A study published in 2009, in which 25 basking sharks were tagged off the coast of Cape Codmarker, Massachusettsmarker, indicated that at least some individuals in the North Atlanticmarker migrate south in the winter. Remaining at depths between and for many weeks, the tagged sharks traveled as far south as Brazilmarker, crossing the equator. One individual spent a month in the waters near the mouth of the Amazon River. It is unknown why the sharks undertake this journey. The lead author of the study, Gregory Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, suspects it may be related to the shark's reproduction. It was also found that basking sharks shed and renew their gill rakers in an ongoing process, rather than over one short period.

They feed at or close to the surface with their mouths wide open and gill rakers erect. They are slow-moving sharks (feeding at about 2 knot) and do not attempt to evade approaching boats (unlike great white sharks). They are harmless to humans if left alone and will not be attracted to chum.

Basking sharks are social animals and form schools segregated by sex, usually in small numbers (3 or 4) but reportedly up to 100 individuals. Their social behaviour is thought to follow visual cues, as although the basking shark's eyes are small, they are fully developed and have been known to visually inspect boats, possibly mistaking them for conspecifics. Females are thought to seek out shallow water to give birth.

These sharks have few predators, but orcas and tiger sharks are known to feed on them, and the aforementioned lampreys are often seen attached to them, although it is unlikely that they are able to cut through the shark's thick skin.

Even though the basking shark is large and slow, it can breach and has been reported jumping fully out of the water. This behaviour could be an attempt to dislodge parasites or commensals.


Basking sharks are ovoviviparous: the developing embryos first rely on a yolk sac, and as there is no placental connection, they later feed on unfertilized ova produced by the mother (a behaviour known as oophagy). The seemingly useless teeth of basking sharks may play a role before birth since the basking shark seems to feed on unfertilized eggs in utero.

Gestation is thought to span over a year (but perhaps 2 or 3 years), with a small though unknown number of young born fully developed at 1.5–2 m (5–6.5 ft). Only one pregnant female is known to have been caught; she was carrying 6 unborn young.Mating is thought to occur in early summer and birthing in late summer, following the female's movement into shallow coastal waters.

The onset of maturity in basking sharks is not known but is thought to be between the age of 6 and 13 and at a length of between 4.6 and 6 m. Breeding frequency is also unknown, but is thought to be 2 to 4 years.

Importance to humans

Historically, the basking shark has been a staple of fisheries because of its slow swimming speed, unaggressive nature and previously abundant numbers. Commercially it was put to many uses: the flesh for food and fishmeal, the hide for leather, and its large liver (which has a high squalene content) for oil. It is currently fished mainly for its fins (for shark fin soup). Parts (such as cartilage) are also used in traditional Chinese medicine and as an aphrodisiac in Japanmarker, further adding to demand.

As a result of rapidly declining numbers, the basking shark has been protected and trade in its products restricted in many countries. It is fully protected in the UKmarker, Maltamarker, Floridamarker and USmarker Gulf and Atlantic watersmarker. Targeted fishing for basking sharks is illegal in New Zealandmarker. Once considered a nuisance along the Canadian Pacific coast, basking sharks were the target of a government eradication program there from 1945 to 1970. , efforts are underway to determine if any sharks still live in the area and monitor their potential recovery.

It is tolerant of boats and divers approaching it and may even circle divers, making it an important draw for dive tourism in areas where it is common.

Basking sharks and cryptozoology

On several occasions, "globster" corpses initially thought to be sea serpents or plesiosaurs have later been identified as likely to be the decomposing carcasses of basking sharks, as in the Stronsay beast and the Zuiyo Maru cases.

See also


  1. Basking Shark

General references

External links

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