Basking Sharks are so named because they’re often seen feeding at the surface of the water where they look like they’re basking in the sun! They are enormous and often spotted in UK waters during summer months.
Apart from their large size, Basking Sharks have:
- a very large mouth – this can be well over 1m wide!
- 5 huge gills which almost encircle the head
- and a powerful crescent-shaped tail
They tend to be greyish-brown with a lighter underbelly. Often they have irregular patches, patterns and streaks on their flanks and fins. Using photo-ID we can use these distinct markings to identify individual Basking Sharks.
The largest reported Basking Shark was 12m long. But most don’t get bigger than 9.8m.
The average Basking Shark weighs 4.5 tonnes. Yet, they can weigh up to 7 tonnes!
Basking Sharks eat zooplankton. This includes small copepods, barnacles, decapod larvae, fish eggs and shrimp. They’re one of 3 filter-feeding sharks but are the only species that feeds entirely passively. They swim through the water with their mouth wide open, rather than actively sucking water in. Only closing their mouths to swallow their food. Long comb-like structures on their gills (known as gill-rakers) trap and filter zooplankton. These can strain up to 2000 tonnes of water per hour!
It’s thought that Basking Sharks live for at least 50 years. Males reach maturity at 12–16 years. And females at 20 years (around 4.6-6.1m in length).
Females produce eggs, which develop and hatch inside their body. They then give birth to fully developed young, which are around 1–1.7m long. This makes Basking Shark pups larger at birth than many species of shark are fully grown!
There’s little data on Basking Shark reproduction. But pregnancy is thought to last around 14 months. There’s only ever been one reported catch of a pregnant female (1943), who was carrying 6 pups. This suggests that Basking Sharks give birth in areas of low, or no fishing pressure.
Basking Sharks are quite social. They can be seen on their own, in small groups, or, schools of hundreds. There are many reports of same size and sex groups. Suggesting a strong sexual and age segregation within the species.
Despite their size, Basking Sharks are capable of leaping clear out of the water. A behaviour known as breaching. They seem to breach most when in large groups and during courtship, so this may act as a social or sexual function. It could also help to dislodge external parasites.
Info from sharktrust.org/about-basking-sharks
Basking Sharks are long lived, slow growing and produce few young. This makes them extremely vulnerable to human impacts. Although Basking Sharks are now one of the most heavily protected sharks in UK and EU waters, they continue to face threats from human activities:
Basking Sharks easily become entangled in fishing nets and ropes. Unless fishermen are on hand to quickly release them, they often die. Although some do manage to disentangle themselves. You can sometimes see scarring and abrasions caused by nets on their dorsal fin.
Propeller and boat strikes remain a serious danger for Basking Sharks. Particularly in summer months when they’re feeding at the surface. Basking Sharks rarely evade approaching boats. So it’s common for them to have scarring and sometimes horrific injuries from collisions.
Basking Sharks are very sensitive to disturbance and harassment by people. In all the excitement of seeing Basking Sharks, boats and jet-ski’s often end up striking them. As well as causing physical harm, water-users can also disrupt their natural behaviour. Such as feeding, courting and mating.
Basking Shark fisheries worldwide have all but collapsed. Although in some parts of the world they continue, driven by demand for shark fins. Basking Sharks are also still caught as bycatch in nets intended for other species.
Info from sharktrust.org/basking-shark-threats
To learn how you can help basking sharks go to sharktrust.org/how-can-you-help-basking-sharks