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Notes on the anatomy and biology of the Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus (Gunner)).

Department of Zoology, University of Bristol

British Musenm (Natural History).

Department of Zoology, University of Bristol

British Musenm (Natural History).


A study of Cetorhinus maximus of the north-eastern Atlantic was made in the Hebrides, where a number of specimens were examined and dissected.

Though it is often stated that Basking sharks reach a length of 40 feet or more, few, if any, exceed 30 feet in a straight line from the tip of the snout to the notch of the caudal fin. None of those measured in the Hebrides exceeded 29 feet in this dimension. The maximum weight appears to be a little over four tons. The general colour is very dark grey, but there is a tendency for lighter and darker areas of grey to form a pattern of longitudinal streaks. Patches of white are generally present on the ventral surface, and are sometimes of considerable extent. The placoid scales of simple type cover most of the body, their basal plates forming a complete mosaic. In some parts of the body parallel sulci which appear to correspond with lines of flexure of the skin are almost completely devoid of denticles. The teeth are simple modifications of the placoid scale and, owing to the presence of vestigial secondary cusps, are asymmetrical except near the median line. There are six rows of teeth in the upper jaw, nine in the lower. The snout in the juvenile is longer and more pointed than in the adult, but the extreme forms that have been reported may have been produced by post-mortem shrinkage of the ampullary mass above the rostral cartilage. The sudden increase in girth at the level of the pharyngeal region, which has been described as a juvenile character, is probably entirely produced by distortion.

The skin lining the mouth and pharynx is smooth at the anterior end but covered with papillae behind. The papillae increase in size and complexity from before backwards; they are low and rounded in front, tall and conical further back, long and branched at the oesophagus into which they project as a large bunch forming a valve.

The stomach is siphonal in shape, with a large partly sacculated cardiac portion, and narrow pyloric limb. The mucosa is beset with crypts; into those of the cardiac part numerous large glands open. The semi liquid contents of the cardiac sac weigh about half a ton, and consist of disintegrating planktonic crustacea mixed with a great quantity of mucus. Removal of water at the beginning of the pyloric limb must be rapid, for this limb contains a thick, dark red paste. The distal end of the pyloric limb is expanded to form the bursa entiana before joining the duodenum. The bursa contains a clear red oil derived from the paste in the proximal part of the limb. Histological examination shows that the oil is probably absorbed by the epithelium of the bursa.

The bile and pancreatic ducts open into the duodenum, a chamber proximal to the first turn of the spiral valve, but not externally separated from the mid intestine. The valve, which is a simple spiral shelf, contains up to about fifty turns. The mucosa of the valve is covered with villi each closely beset with glands; a stratum of lymphoid tissue lies beneath the glands. The colon and rectum are comparatively short, but there is a large rectal gland lined by a thick glandular mucosa.

Full histological details are given of the various parts of the alimentary canal, and of the liver, pancreas, and spleen; and the topography of the abdominal viscera and their mesenteries is described.

The brain is small in proportion to the size of the animal, and lies in a voluminous perimeningeal space supported by innumerable fine strands of tissue. The olfactory tracts are narrow and elongated, exceeding the remainder of the brain in length. The olfactory organ is a modification of the simple type found in many smaller elasmobranchs, and is arranged so that a continuous stream of water enters at a scoop-like funnel, passes over the nasal mucosa spread out on a number of plates, and leaves by a backwardly directed exhaust funnel. Details of the lateral line system are given as far as it was investigated; the majority of the ampullae of Lorenzini are concentrated into a mass which occupies the whole of the space above the rostral cartilage.

The gill arches each carry from 1000 to 1300 gill rakers up to 10 cm. long, their free ends directed towards the mouth. When the mouth is opened the rakers are erected by contraction of a complex of muscle strands connecting the bases of the rakers to the branchial cartilages: when it is shut they are returned to a position flat on the surface of the arches by the action of elastic fibres. It is suggested that plankton filtered off by the rakers is entangled in muous secreted by the epithelium at their bases, and that the mixture is squeezed out into the mouth when the rakers collapse. The details of the gill filaments are described, and the total respiratory surface in a shark 7.0 metres long is calculated to be of the order of 270 sq. metres. The functional significance of this comparatively large area is pointed out.

Among the contents of the stomach it was possible to recognize fish eggs of several species, Calanus and other copepods, and larvae of cirripedes and decapods; there were no indications of organisms larger than Calanus. The plankton-remains in the stomach are very fragmentary, and appear to have been subjected not only to chemical disintegration but also to mechanical breakdown, possibly by a churning action of the stomach muscles and crushing movements of the gill rakers. The net weight of solid organic matter in the stomach contents was less than 30 per cent. of the total, and mucus accounted for a considerable part of it. The organic solids contain approximately 7 to 8 per cent. of the clear, red astacene-containing oil which is separated out in the bursa entiana.

When feeding the Basking shark swims at a rate of about two knots, and calculation shows that at this speed a shark of average size would filter over two thousand tons of sea water an hour. The fish swims with the mouth widely open and the gills and pharyngeal region greatly expanded, feeding and respiration being simultaneous and almost automatic. The basking habit, in which the first dorsal fin and the tip of the tail project above the surface of the water is probably adopted when the concentration of plankton is great near the surface; it is likely that feeding also takes place when the fish are completely submerged. The basking habit is probably correlated also with the breeding behaviour of the fish.

All the sharks seen at close quarters at sea carried one or more lampreys attached to the skin, and all dead fish examined bore superficial marks caused by the suckers of lampreys. The denticles appear to form an armouring too hard for lampreys to penetrate, for no wounds attributable to them were seen.

The large parasitic copepod Dinematura producta was common on the skin of the sharks examined. Comparison of the extensive material collected with that from other hosts shows that there are at least three host-forms of the copepod. The differences lie in the organs of prehension and adhesion; they may be ecoptypic in origin, their form being determined by the nature of the host-skin on which the larvae settle. The parasites erode the skin of the host sufficiently to expose the basal plates of the denticles, but examination of the gut contents failed to disclose any recognizable blood corpuscles, and it is possible that the food is no more substantial than mucus.

Another parasitic copepod, Nemesis lamna, was numerous on the gills where it causes extensive though superficial damage to the filaments, the mucosa being cut up by the parasite and hypertrophied to three times its normal thickness.

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Two species of cestodes of the genus Dinobothrium, one of them new to science, were found in the spiral valve, and have formed the subject of a separate report.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Basking Sharks

With a scientific name that translates to «large-nosed sea monster,» the Basking Shark is an elusive member of the shark family.

For being the second largest shark in the world and having a nickname like, basking, it may seem like 50ft-planktivores are easy to study. Even so, scientists have only put a few pieces of the basking shark story together. These peculiar sharks, whose scientific name, Cetorhinus maximus, translates to “large-nosed sea monster”, don’t just float thorough life. They actively navigate surface waters for food in the form of tiny animal plankton (aka zooplankton). With basking shark areas going as long as 20 years between sightings, knowing where to find them can be hard to predict. Still, a single sighting can be immensely valuable, since basking sharks are known to aggregate in large numbers. The most reported in one sighting was a school of over 1,000 basking sharks, and the mingling doesn’t stop there.


REQUIN PELERIN, Cetorhinus maximus, Cetorhinidae, se nourrit de plancton, Ile de Man, Royaume Uni / BASKING SHARK, Cetorhinus maximus, Cetorhinidae, Feeding on plankton, Isle of Man, UK

Photo by: Gerard Soury

Found in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, genetic research shows individuals from either ocean are still part of one big population. To put that into perspective, consider their cousins, the great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), who are highly migratory, but genetic research still separates the Pacific and Atlantic great whites into two sub-populations. That is to say, basking sharks are serious jetstream-setters in the shark world. Over in the Atlantic Ocean, satellite tagging data shows transatlantic travel goes both east to west, where the ocean can span 2,060, miles, as well as north to south, which is at least 9,000, miles going just from Iceland to Chile. A testament to basking shark unpredictability is that some of the most stunning footage of their behavior — like the video taken by Chloe Ryan from Kilkee, Ireland during a casual stroll just steps away from her door — comes from citizen scientists.

Photo by: Dr. Dave Ebert

Part of the challenge with understanding basking sharks is certainly due to overfishing. Since the early 1900s, these ocean-surface grazers have been fished all over the world for their livers, meat, and fins. Consequently, in 2019 the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species declared basking sharks to be Endangered. All the same, low numbers may not be the only reason for the mysterious waters still surrounding them. To dive past science’s surface understanding of basking sharks, fisheries scientist Dr. Brittany Finucci from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) dove deeper than the 4,000 feet in the mesopelagic layer, where they also can go for food.

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Dr. Finucci, the lead author of a recent publication, was one of eight investigators from four New Zealand institutions that examined 131 years’ worth of data on 401 basking sharks over a 4.2 million km2 aerial-surveyed area within the South Pacific Ocean. The publication focused on what drives these gentle giants to the seas of their choosing so as to better predict the waters that basking sharks will or could use in the future. The biggest takeaway from the New Zealand investigators is that basking sharks are the foodies of the ocean. Where the zooplankton go, the basking sharks will follow, especially when it comes to copepods. Without being able to look up the online reviews for the best and latest basking shark dinner hotspots, the researchers found this out by doing some good ol’ fashion math in the form of correlative statistic models for habitat suitability. Super simple stuff- just kidding, this statistical analysis is complementary to the behemoth size of basking sharks. Thanks to this massive effort, the uncertainty of basking sharks in the South Pacific was analyzed for the first time.

About Basking Sharks

How to Spot a Basking Shark

photo credit: Flickr/Creative Commons

The basking sharks are the second largest shark species in the world after the whale shark, and reach lengths of 33 feet (10 m). They have a mottled gray or brown coloration, pointed snouts, a huge mouth, and enormous gill slits that nearly encircle their heads. Often their most visible feature is their prominent dorsal fin (see photo). They are generally considered to be sluggish sharks, often seen “basking” at the surface as they swim slowly along with their large mouths open to filter water for food. Basking sharks are very social animals, often being spotted in small groups of 2 or 3 individuals, up to very large groups of 500 or more.

A Species of Concern

In 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) identified basking sharks in the eastern North Pacific Ocean as a “Species of Concern.” Species of Concern are those species about which (NMFS) has some concerns regarding status and threats, but for which insufficient information is available to indicate a need to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. The designation is a means to draw proactive attention and conservation action to these species. North Pacific basking sharks are also listed as “Endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Why the concern? Three major reasons underlie the NMFS listing:

1) A dramatic population decline of basking sharks off the coast of Canada and California since the 1900’s.

2) No signs of population recovery 50 years after the closure of the basking shark fishery in the eastern North Pacific.

3) A severe lack of information on the species that makes it difficult to develop a recovery plan,

Basking sharks reproduce very slowly, which contributes to a slow rate of population recovery. Scientists estimate that basking sharks only reproduce every 18 months to three years, and bear litters of one to six pups. However, much of basking shark biology remains a mystery. Basking sharks also remain vulnerable to human activities, including collisions with vessels when they feed at the surface, accidental entanglement in fishing gear, and illegal harvesting of their fins for shark fin soup.

Though basking sharks are charismatic giants among fishes, we still know very little about how many there are, where they live, and where they go in the Pacific Ocean. Reporting your sightings can help us gather this crucial information to inform a recovery plan for this species of concern.

Where Do Basking Sharks Go?

Basking sharks have been reported all over the world, from arctic waters to the tropics. They are most commonly observed in coastal temperate waters, such as the waters of California, where they are frequently seen feeding at the surface.

Scientists believe that basking sharks on the Pacific coast of North America belong to a single population that seasonally shifts from north to south between Canada and central California. Basking sharks have been sighted in waters across the Pacific, from North America to the Hawaiian Islands, and from Japan to China and Taiwan.

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Studies of basking sharks in the North Atlantic have revealed their capacity to make long distance migrations across the ocean basin. The full geographic range and of basking sharks in the North Pacific is unknown; consequently, it is not clear whether one or more populations occur in the North Pacific. Reporting your basking shark sightings can help us fill in these knowledge gaps.


Like baleen whales, basking sharks are filter-feeding giants that eat vast quantities of some the ocean’s smallest inhabitants: zooplankton. Unlike the megamouth and whale sharks, the other filter-feeding sharks which actively pump or gulp water to ingest prey, basking sharks rely entirely on the passive flow of water over their gill rakers. They can often be spotted cruising through the water with their giant mouths open. An adult basking shark swimming at a constant speed of two knots passes about 2,000 gallons of water over its gills per hour! An individual shark may have as much as a half-ton of food in its stomach.

Visit our Basking Shark Resources page to for links to more basking shark information.

Students to swim with basking sharks

Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, the 2nd largest fish in the sea, feeding by straining plankton through gill rakers, off Land’s End, Cornwall, U.K. (North Atlantic Ocean) — All media are authorized to use this image only with inclusion of photographer’s copyright notice as follows: «© Doug Perrine» and only in connection with news related to Western University research from this study.


By Debora Van Brenk

With a body as long as a school bus and an open mouth that could swallow a washing machine, basking sharks are really, really big.

And for environmental sustainability students in professor Paul Mensink’s class, learning can hardly get more immersive than a deep dive into the world of a vulnerable species that is the planet’s second-largest shark.

Starting early next year, the class will be the first to use an innovative augmented-reality (AR) app that will bring them, virtually, into an oceanscape, where they will swim beside the basking sharks.

Then they’ll be swallowed up in the creature’s massive maw, shrink to the size of zooplankton, be digested and finally be excreted as ‘marine snow.’

“One of the challenges of studying the ocean is that you can show lots of photos but you can’t see the scope or the scale,” said Mensink, a professor of marine ecology who specializes in educational technology and is a Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Science. “This app will use AR and a bit of gamification to add to students’ knowledge base. It’s a comprehensive and immersive experience.”

Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, the 2nd largest fish in the sea, feeding by straining plankton through gill rakers, off Land’s End, Cornwall, United Kingdom (North Atlantic Ocean ) All media are authorized to use this image only with inclusion of photographer’s copyright notice as follows: “© Doug Perrine” and only in connection with news related to Western University research from this study.

There’s an app for that

Mensink and his team are the first Canadian researchers to be awarded a grant from Unity Charitable Fund, a fund of the Tides Foundation, for US$50,000.

The grant will support the development of the EnviroXR tool, with London-based creative technology firm EXAR Studios developing and testing an app that will make the entire class marine biologists and conservationists.

The plan is that students in the course, cellphones in hand, will board an AR ‘boat’ and navigate a strategically placed sea of shark fins cruising along UC Hill, Mensink said.

When they tap their phones on the fins, they can affix satellite-tracking tags to the sharks and then dive into the ocean to come face-to-jaw with the giant creature.

“They’ll be able to walk alongside the shark and get a sense of how large these sharks can be,” Mensink said. “They’ll look inside the shark’s mouth and see its tiny teeth and huge gill rakers from the inside. And then they’ll be swallowed whole.”

Basking sharks are the second-largest fish in the ocean (only whale sharks are larger) but are filter feeders of tiny organisms and have no appetite for people.

Professor Paul Mensink, department of biology, faculty of science

They are deemed a vulnerable species globally and, with their numbers in sharp decline off Canada’s Pacific coast, Canada’s species-at-risk program has declared them endangered.

Mensink said students will learn not just about the sharks but about how the species’ presence, or absence, affects the ecosystem in both the ocean and on land.

When there are fewer creatures to dine on surface-layer plankton, for example, the ocean is less capable of performing its vital role in locking atmospheric carbon away in sediment on the sea floor.

Research angle

The AR experience is about more than gee-whiz technology, however. Mensink said it’s also part of a research project to investigate whether students learn better immersively than, say, by watching a video or hearing a lecture.

“Sure this is cool, or sounds cool, but is it actually effective in helping students to learn and stay engaged? We hope so but we need to look at whether it’s better, and how it might be better than traditional teaching and learning methods.

Unity Social Impact is a division of Unity aimed at empowering employees and creators of all backgrounds to foster a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable world.

“We believe that immersive educational experiences have the power to produce better learning outcomes, and to reach learners from a wider variety of backgrounds,” Marina Psaros, global sustainability lead with Unity, said in a statement. “In virtual environments, anyone from around the world can experience what their community might look like in a climate-disrupted future, or have an underwater encounter with an endangered basking shark. We’re thrilled to be providing the resources to EXAR Studios and Western University to expand the possibilities of XR for conservation science and education.”

EXAR Studios is an award-winning immersive technology company with a focus on tourism and local business with specialties that include education, sustainability, mental health, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We are reimagining what education can be, and inspiring the next generation of environmental champions,” said EXAR chief strategy officer Shishir “S” Pande.

Basking shark guide: how big they are, what they eat, and why they’re endangered

Basking sharks are the second largest shark species in the world, and the largest found in UK waters. They feed on microscopic animals called zooplankton.

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Despite their immense size, basking sharks are not dangerous to humans. Learn more about these incredible sharks in our expert guide by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

Where are basking sharks found?

Basking sharks can be found in cold to temperate waters all over the world and are normally seen in UK waters between April and October every year.

The most common hotspots include South West Cornwall, around the Isle of Man and up and down the West Coast of Scotland.

The Marine Conservation Society have, however, had sightings reported to their Basking Shark Watch citizen science project from all over the UK. So it’s always worth looking out to sea, especially in the summer months, for those bulbous noses and tall fins breaking through the surface of the water.

More on basking sharks:

  • News (2020): Family matters for basking sharks
  • News (2019): Robot cameras uncover the hidden world of basking sharks
  • News (2018): Amazing new footage shows basking sharks being sociable in Scottish waters

What is the scientific name of the basking shark?

The scientific name for basking sharks is Cetorhinus maximus and belong to the Order Lamniformes which is known as the mackerel sharks.

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This Order includes other famous sharks such as the great white and the megamouth shark.

How to identify basking sharks

Basking sharks are the second biggest fish in the sea and can grow to over 10m long. The only other shark that is bigger is the whale shark.

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They have big, bulbous noses that stick out of the water when they are feeding near the surface, followed by a big dorsal fin and a tail fin at the end. Most of the time you will see them with their huge mouths wide open swimming into the current to feed.

What do basking sharks eat?

Although part of the same order, basking sharks do not share the same diet as their seal-eating great white cousins. Despite being the second largest fish in the sea, growing to over 10m long, they eat some of the smallest creatures in the ocean: plankton, specifically, zooplankton.

These microscopic animals live in the sea water and are captured by basking sharks as they swim through the water with their mouths wide open, filtering the plankton out of the water as they go.

What eats basking sharks?

The basking shark does not have many predators, however, could be eaten perhaps by another big shark or a hungry pod of 0rca (also known as killer whales).

What are baby basking sharks called?

Baby sharks are known as ‘pups’ which includes baby basking sharks. We do not know much about basking shark pups or where they are born.

We do know that the mothers give birth to live young rather than lay eggs, but we still have much more to learn about the early years of basking sharks.

How long do basking sharks live for?

According to the Shark Trust, females don’t mature until 20 years of age “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).”

So as might be expected for such a large animal, they could likely live for several decades.

Are basking sharks endangered?

Basking sharks are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, and were last assessed in 2018, having been previously classified as Vulnerable.

Are basking sharks dangerous to humans?

Not directly as they are gentle plankton feeders, only if a small boat was to perhaps get in the path of a large shark feeding at the surface, which is why it is important when at sea to always abide by the recommendations of the WiSE scheme and only to go wildlife watching with boats accredited to this scheme.

In Scotland, the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 (mentioned above) required production of a Marine Wildlife Watching Code which should be abided by for wildlife encounters in Scotland.

What threats do basking sharks face?

Basking sharks are at risk globally because of the value of their fins, for which they are directly targeted. They are also at risk of propeller damage from collision with boats and of entanglement in fishing gear, particularly the lines for static gear such as pots and creels for catching lobsters and crabs.

“Scottish Natural Heritage advises that, in order to conserve basking sharks and minke whales, risk of injury and death should be minimised, access to resources within the site should be maintained, and supporting features should also be conserved.

The management advice to reduce these pressures includes:

  • Use of best practice to reduce risk of boat collision;
  • Reduce disturbance from noisy activities through best practice mitigation;
  • Exclusion of drift and set net fishing gear;
  • Further development and adoption of best practice to avoid entanglement in creel ropes;
  • Management of fishing activities for key prey species e.g. herring and sprat;
  • Exclusion of targeted fishing for sandeels;
  • Use of best practice to reduce fishing bycatch;
  • Consideration of new or altered ferry routes to reduce collision risk; and
  • Minimising impacts to sandeel habitat through appropriate siting of new developments.”

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What work is being done to conserve basking sharks?

In the UK basking sharks are protected under:

  • Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
  • Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000
  • Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985
  • Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004

These Acts make it illegal to intentionally kill, injure or harass basking sharks in British waters. Any person committing such an offence could face up to 6 months in prison and a large fine.

They’re also protected under:

  • Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – In 2007 basking sharks became a Prohibited Species in the EU. EU commercial fishing vessels are prohibited from targeting, retaining, trans-shipping or landing them. And this also applies to third country vessels in EU waters.
  • UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) – In 1997 the basking shark was listed in the UK BAP – an inventory of the nation’s biodiversity. This identified the basking shark as being in urgent need of conservation management and laid out detailed plans for their protection.

In 2009, the Scottish Government consulted on the Sea of the Hebrides proposed Marine Protected Area, in addition to another three new inshore MPAs in Scottish waters, which if designated would be the first MPA of its kind in the world.

MCS teamed up with the Scottish Wildlife Trust to show public support for this proposed MPA (and the other three) which was supported by over 3,300 public responses. The Sea of the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland is one of the most important places in the world for basking sharks and the MCS hopes that it can become a MPA to provide even more protection in UK waters for these gentle giants.

  • International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – The Northeast Atlantic sub-population of basking sharks is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. They have a very high risk of extinction in the wild. So, immediate monitoring and management is needed.
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – The basking shark is listed under Appendix II of the CITES. International trade is controlled to ensure it doesn’t threaten the survival of the species.
  • Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) – Basking sharks are listed in Appendices I and II of the CMS. Basking sharks know no borders, so it’s vital they’re protected in all waters. Cooperation across countries is vital.
  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – The basking shark is listed under Annex I – Highly Migratory Species – of the UNCLOS. Article 64 of UNCLOS directs signatory States to cooperate to ensure the conservation of this species. As well as encouraging optimal utilisation if they’re caught.

Where are the best places to see basking sharks in the UK?

Mainly up and down the west coast from Cornwall, through Welsh waters to the Isle of man, Firth of Clyde and all the way up the west coast of Scotland. Occasionally they are also sighted in the North Sea as well.

The Marine Conservation Society fights for the future of our ocean through people-powered action – with science on our side. For seas full of life, where nature flourishes and people thrive.

Main image: Basking shark swimming underwater in Baltimore, Cork, Ireland. © George Karbus Photography/Getty