Although the appearance of basking sharks may spark legends of ferocious sea monsters, this second largest species of shark poses no threat to humans. Its scientific name, Cetorhinus maximus, comes from Greek words meaning “marine monster,” “nose,” and “great.” Its other common names are elephant shark, bone shark, and sunfish.
Because of its enormous size, the basking shark must always be treated with respect by humans. Although very tolerant of boats, swimmers, and divers, the basking shark is very large and could do some damage accidentally.
Basking Shark Facts for Kids
- Basking sharks are the second-largest fish in the ocean
- They can grow to 45 feet in length
- Basking sharks live for about 50 years
- A basking shark’s liver takes up 25 percent of its weight.
- They often swim in pairs or large groups of up to 100
- Female basking sharks go through a gestation period of three years
- They have been observed leaping out of the water, possibly to eliminate parasites.
- The basking shark filters about 1814 tons of water each hour while feeding
The basking shark is found in the arctic (cold) and temperate (mild) waters worldwide. These sharks will venture offshore but will also enter bays and estuaries or inlets of the ocean. They are a highly migratory species of sharks, moving seasonally to find better sources of food and to give birth.
Most of the time, basking sharks are found close to the surface of the open areas of the ocean, swimming with mouths wide open. In fact, their tendency to bask, and lie in the warmth of the sun, led to the name of the species.
Basking sharks are only second to the whale shark when talking about the size sharks. Average basking sharks are between 22-29 feet. In fact, newborn basking sharks are believed to be 5-6 feet, which is taller than a lot of adult humans. As adults, they can weigh a little more than 10,000 pounds, the size of nine adult polar bears!
The basking shark is grayish-brown in color on its dorsal, or back, side. This color fades into lighter shades on the ventral, or stomach, side. It looks very similar to a great white shark and often is mistaken for its more aggressive relative.
The basking shark’s head is one feature easily recognizable. Its snout, or nose, is cone-shaped, and its head is nearly surrounded by large gill slits. Its mouth is wide (about 3 feet in width) and full of small, hooked teeth.
The basking shark is also known for having very rough placoid scales on its entire body. Placoid scales are bony, spiny projections with an enamel-like covering and are similar to teeth. The basking shark’s skin is as rough as sandpaper!
The basking shark, along with the whale shark and megamouth shark, is one of only 3 shark species that are filter feeders. However, the basking shark is special because it does not actively feed through a suctioning technique. Instead, it swims passively with its mouth open wide and gulps in water. The tiny creatures found in the water, especially plankton, become food for the huge whale.
Due to its size, the basking shark must take in enormous amounts of water to make sure it is getting enough to eat. Scientists estimate the basking shark takes in about 2,000 TONS of water every HOUR!
The basking shark has a very large liver, which is about ¼ the size of its entire body. The liver helps with the sharks’ buoyancy, or ability to float in water. Despite its size, the liver of a basking shark literally helps keep it afloat. Without this special adaptation, the basking shark would sink like a rock! The liver also helps with storing energy.
There is limited information about the reproduction of basking sharks. What scientists do know is that baby basking sharks, called pups, are carried for about 2-3 years before being born! This is a much longer time frame than other shark species. Female basking sharks have small litters of 6 pups and only give birth once every 2-4 years.
Unfortunately, this huge shark has faced a population decline in recent years. Scientists estimate an 80% decrease in population numbers in the last 60 years! This drastic decline has been due to overfishing. Basking sharks are prized for their very large liver, which is used to make oil. Their fins and other body parts are also used for food and medicine. They are listed as a Vulnerable species, and it is now illegal to fish for basking sharks in many places.
More Fun Fact about Basking Sharks
- Basking sharks have sometimes been observed breaching or jumping high out of the water. Imagine the splash this would cause! Some researchers believe they do this to rid themselves of parasites, living things that live on or in other living things.
- The basking shark can weigh between 6,000 and 13,000 pounds.
- It has a very large mouth and very highly developed gill rakers.
- The basking shark has hundreds of small teeth but doesn’t use them when it is feeding. Because it eats plankton, it swims with an open mouth.
- It generally likes to swim in subpolar seas
- They are not harmful to humans despite their large size
- In some countries like the UK, New Zealand, and Malta, the basking shark is a protected species.