Sea breaking against rocks, Mull Head, North Hill RSPB reserve, Papa Westray, Orkney.

Meet the basking shark

In May, the second-biggest shark in the world starts to return to UK waters. But don’t worry, it’s harmless (unless you’re plankton).

Introducing the basking shark

Let’s face it: at first glance, this gawping giant looks pretty terrifying. You definitely wouldn’t want him swimming up beside you while you’re taking a dip in the sea. Right?

Wrong!

The basking shark is actually one of the safest sharks you could encounter because, despite its enormous size, it feeds on zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates. Humans definitely aren’t on the menu. Phew!

Wet tidal sand at Culbin Sands RSPB reserve, cast of Lugworm

Big mouth

Basking sharks are passive feeders, which means they don’t actively hunt. Instead, they swim with their mouths wide open, taking in water (which it pushes out again through its gills), and gobbling down any tasty morsels that might get in its way. 

These magnificent monsters of the deep can grow to 6-8 meters (20-26ft) in length and live for up to 50 years. 

Basking sharks can be found all over the world, including off the coast of Cornwall, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. They’re seasonal visitors, arriving in large numbers between May and October each year. 

But there are major mysteries surrounding these gentle giants. For a long time, nobody knew where these elusive creatures disappeared off to in winter. Then scientists discovered they were travelling south to Florida and the Caribbean and living deep, deep below the surface. But where they give birth is still unknown. 

What is certain, however, is that their numbers are decreasing. This is due to basking sharks being caught illegally for their fins, skin (used as leather) and liver oil.

Basking shark myths

There have been many cases of basking sharks being mistaken for sea monsters over the centuries. This is because, when a basking shark decays, the lower gills and jaw rots away leaving just a small head on what looks like a long, serpent-like neck. 

Dun Athad, The Oa RSPB Scotland Reserve, Islay

Basking shark

Basking shark swimming with mouth open

Basking shark swimming with mouth open

Play video
Basking shark screenshot

Shark spotting

Did you know, in 1851 a basking shark was caught in Canada which measured an incredible 40ft and weighed an eye-watering 19 tons? That’s the same as three elephants!

Fancy a bit of shark-spotting? Here are some of the locations basking sharks were recorded at last summer. Hopefully they'll return in 2016!

Shark hotspots

England

  • Dawlish, Devon 
  • Newquay, Cornwall 
  • Porthleven, Cornwall 
  • Mevagissey, Cornwall 
  • Land's End, Cornwall 
  • Lizard Point, Cornwall 
  • The Scilly Isles

Wales

  • Rhiw 
  • Ogmore 
  • Anglesey

Scotland

  • Balmedie Beach, Aberdeen 
  • Mull, Inner Hebrides 
  • Coll, Inner Hebrides 
  • Firth of Clyde