Basking Shark

Cetorhinus Maximus

Last updated: May 27, 2024
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© rossbeane, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons – License / Original


Basking Shark Scientific Classification

Scientific Name
Cetorhinus Maximus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Basking Shark Conservation Status

Basking Shark Locations

Basking Shark Locations

Basking Shark Facts

Main Prey
Fish, Plankton, Invertebrates
Distinctive Feature
Enormous mouth and large body size
Optimum pH Level
5 - 7
Temperate waters along continental shelves
Sharks, Humans, Killer Whales

Basking Shark Physical Characteristics

  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Black
Skin Type
20 - 100 years
6m - 12m (20ft - 39ft)

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Basking sharks, also known as bone sharks, may have an intimidating appearance and massive size that could easily frighten nearby swimmers or divers, but they are essentially harmless as far as humans and aquatic animals are concerned. Much like whales, these sharks feed on plankton and other tiny life forms by filtering vast amounts of ocean water through their mouths. They routinely cruise or even float along the surface with their mouths hanging open as they gather food. They are the second-largest known shark species and one of only three sharks that rely on plankton as a food source.

4 Incredible Basking Shark Facts!

  • Filtration experts: Their massive size and large mouths allow these sharks to filter thousands of gallons of water per hour.
  • Mouth agape: These sharks tend to swim with their big mouth hanging wide open, which can be intimidating to divers who don’t know better.
  • Slow breeders: These sharks are particularly slow at reproducing and may take up to 3 years to be born after conception.
  • Breach potential: Unlike most sharks, basking sharks are known to leap completely out of the water much like whales.

Classification And Scientific Name

Aside from the name basking shark, which they’ve earned through their habit of floating gently along the ocean’s surface, these massive animals are also known as bone sharks or elephant sharks. Their scientific name is Cetorhinus maximus. Cetorhinus is taken from the Greek words meaning “sea monster” and “nose,” while maximus means biggest or greatest in size. Thus the Basking Shark is one of the biggest fish in the world. The species is part of the Cetorhinidae family in the Chondrichthyes class.

Evolution And History

The oldest known member of the basking shark species is from an extinct genus called Keasius which lived 66 million years ago. This ancestor gave way to Cetorhinus parvus, a now-extinct basking shark species indicated by the bristle-like gill rakers. Fossil records were discovered that can trace the basking shark back about 35 million to 29 million years to the Cezozoic era. The shark that we know today didn’t begin to appear until 23 million years ago, during the late Miocene era.

Types Of

The basking shark is a plankton-eating, filter-feeding shark that is one of three species of fish. The largest sharks in the world all belong to the same plankton-eating species. The basking shark is the second-largest living shark, next to the whale shark, which ranks as the largest shark in the world.

  • Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus)- the largest living shark
  • Megamouth Shark (Megachasma pelagios)- this rarely-seen shark is the smallest of the three species.


This shark species is one of the most easily recognized by external appearance alone due to its notable size and distinct features. The average adult shark can extend up to 26 feet long from nose to tail with some individuals reported reaching lengths of over 40 feet. Their great size is also accompanied by comparable mass, with an average mass of roughly 8,500 pounds. Their coloration ranges from a light brownish gray to nearly black with the potential for mottled or pale skin as well.

Basking sharks have distinct gills that nearly encircle their entire body. Their gills are equipped with gill rakers, which are filament-like growths along the gills that catch plankton from the water passing through the slits. While their other physical features generally resemble other large shark species, like the great white, they sport a crescent-shaped tail fin that gives them another unique hallmark to distinguish them from their predatory cousins.

These sharks typically leave their massive mouth hanging wide open to maximize water intake as they slowly swim or float with the current. Their mouths are full of dozens of rows of tiny hooked teeth that can number well into the thousands. Their motion and feeding are relatively passive, although they can completely breach the surface of the water and engage in more rigorous swimming when threatened.

Distribution, Population, And Habitat

Basking Shark with mouth open

Basking Sharks prefer cool to temperate clmates.

©NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center / Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository – Original / License

Geographically, the basking shark has a massive distribution that covers vast stretches of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. They prefer cool to temperate climates, so their range does not include the Arctic, Antarctica, or tropical locations. However, they may pass through tropical waters during their long migratory trajectories that can extend for thousands of miles. They are encountered along the west coast of North and South America as well as much of the European, Australian, and South African coastline.

Exact population numbers are unknown and can only be estimated by location, but the species is considered endangered by conservationists. There are an estimated 10,000 individuals in Atlantic Canada, which is one of their prime feeding grounds. Targeting by commercial fisheries as recently as the 1950s caused a noticeable decline in the worldwide population that has yet to recover. Their extremely slow maturation process and long gestation period combined with the frequency of human encounters are leading factors in population decline.

Predators And Prey

What Do Basking Sharks Eat

Predators: What Eats Basking Sharks?

Their massive size makes them virtually immune to natural predators, but they are particularly vulnerable to humans. Their easy availability on the water’s surface, passive nature, and high historical population made them a tempting target for fisheries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These sharks are also susceptible to parasites like sea lampreys and cookie-cutter sharks.

Prey: Facts About Basking Shark Feeding

Basking sharks are adapted to feed on marine zooplankton, which are the myriad of microscopic organisms and larvae that live in ocean water. They are typically available in greater abundance near the surface, where there is sunlight, or near the bottom along the substrate. The sharks typically rely on currents and their slow swimming motion to force water into their mouth and through their gills so they can snag their food, occasionally closing their mouth to ingest quantities of trapped prey.

For a complete analysis of the basking shark’s diet, give ‘What Do Basking Sharks Eat: Their Diet Explained‘ a read!

Reproduction And Lifespan

Basking sharks usually move into shallower coastal waters when they are preparing to reproduce, which usually occurs between May and July. Individuals may have different partners throughout a single breeding season. Aerial and direct observation by researchers indicates complex courtship and mating procedures between adult sharks. A combination of synchronized swimming, biting, and nudging may serve as part of the ritual.

Basking sharks can live for over 30 years in the wild and some experts believe their lifespan could reach up to 50 years. However, it takes an estimated 12 to 16 years for females to mature to the point where they can reproduce. While facts regarding reproduction in this species are limited to a few observations and specimens, researchers believe that they have a gestation period of around 3 years and give birth to litters of around 6 pups.

Use In Fishing And Cooking

Historically, basking sharks served as an important source of raw meat and fishmeal, as well as leather from their skin and oil extracted from their liver. Some modern fisheries still target them for their fins, a key ingredient in shark fin soup, and for various internal parts that are prized in local traditional medicines, particularly in Asia. However, many countries have imposed a moratorium on fishing due to a substantial ongoing decline in the global population.


Overall population numbers for this species are not known due to their wide depth range and extreme migration potential. However, researchers have been reporting fewer sightings in many native habitats and the species is considered endangered and at serious risk of further decline. The shark’s slow maturation and reproductive rate combined with its susceptibility to intentional and unintentional fishing are serious threats to long-term viability.

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About the Author

Melissa Bauernfeind was born in NYC and got her degree in Journalism from Boston University. She lived in San Diego for 10 years and is now back in NYC. She loves adventure and traveling the world with her husband but always misses her favorite little man, "P", half Chihuahua/half Jack Russell, all trouble. She got dive-certified so she could dive with the Great White Sharks someday and is hoping to swim with the Orcas as well.

Basking Shark FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where are basking sharks found?

These sharks are found throughout the temperate waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Continental shelves and coastlines are prime habitats for these massive fish. They are often seen floating or slowly swimming along the surface of the water, which is a prime location to collect zooplankton.

What do basking sharks eat?

Basking sharks are filter feeders that consume zooplankton. They can filter thousands of gallons of ocean water each hour, scouring it for tiny crustaceans, fish and larval organisms.

How big do basking sharks get?

In addition to their relatively long lifespan, these sharks also reach an average physical length of around 25 feet and over 8000 pounds in weight. Some reports indicate that these sharks can reach lengths of over 40 feet, although this is considered exceptional.

Can a basking shark eat a human?

Since basking sharks are not predatory, there is virtually no risk of them consuming a human or attacking them directly. However, the sharks have been known to react violently in response to attack or forceful human incursion.

Are basking sharks friendly?

Basking sharks are incredibly passive and rarely react to humans unless threatened directly. They typically allow boats and divers to approach to close distances, which makes them an interesting marine attraction for tourists in some areas.

What Kingdom do Basking Sharks belong to?

Basking Sharks belong to the Kingdom Animalia.

What class do Basking Sharks belong to?

Basking Sharks belong to the class Chondrichthyes.

What phylum to Basking Sharks belong to?

Basking Sharks belong to the phylum Chordata.

What family do Basking Sharks belong to?

Basking Sharks belong to the family Cetorhinidae.

What order do Basking Sharks belong to?

Basking Sharks belong to the order Lamniformes.

What genus do Basking Sharks belong to?

Basking Sharks belong to the genus Cetorhinus.

What type of covering do Basking Sharks have?

Basking Sharks are covered in Smooth skin.

What are some predators of Basking Sharks?

Predators of Basking Sharks include sharks, humans, and killer whales.

What are some distinguishing features of Basking Sharks?

Basking Sharks have enormous mouths and large bodies.

What is an interesting fact about Basking Sharks?

The Basking Shark is the second biggest fish in the world!

What is the scientific name for the Basking Shark?

The scientific name for the Basking Shark is Cetorhinus Maximus.

What is the lifespan of a Basking Shark?

Basking Sharks can live for 20 to 100 years.

What is the optimal pH for a Basking Shark?

The optimal pH for a Basking Shark is between 5.0 and 7.0.

How to say Basking Shark in ...
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