What Do Basking Sharks Eat? Their Diet Explained

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Updated: January 16, 2022
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What Do Basking Sharks Eat
Basking sharks are filter feeders that while huge survive on zooplankton, copepods, and larvae


Basking Sharks are one of the ocean’s most mysterious marine life. They are the world’s second-largest fish right after the whale shark. Despite being related to the great white and having a predatory look, they are a gentle mackerel shark that survives off planktonic life. Let’s take a look at what basking sharks eat and the unique way they feed. 

How Does The Basking Shark Hunt?

Basking shark isolated on white background
Basking sharks open their mouth wide and feed!


Basking sharks are one of three species of sharks that are filter feeders. Unlike the other two species of filter-feeding sharks, the basking shark cannot suck water through its mouth and must passively feed. They swim through the water opening their large 3 foot (0.9 meters) mouth to collect plankton in long gill rakers, closing it occasionally to swallow and filter the plankton. 

Basking sharks are migratory and will feed while traveling long distances. They are often seen near the surface of the water slowly moving at around 2.3 mph (4 kph). While it may look like they are basking in the sun, they are feeding off dense pockets of plankton near the water’s surface. Their gaping mouths filter water through their gills and the small plankton gets captured by the gill rakers, which are long and comb-like. 

Basking sharks will feed in water with dense plankton pockets and will form large groups of up to 100. While their largemouth looks intimidating they will only eat small plankton and will go out of their way to avoid large objects. 

What Do Basking Sharks Eat?

Basking Shark with mouth open
Basking Shark with mouth open

Chris Gotschalk / Public Domain

Plankton is the main source of food for the basking shark but what exactly is it? Plankton is classified as a marine drifter and is an organism unable to swim, carried by the tide. There are two main types of plankton; phytoplankton, and zooplankton. The basking shark’s preferred food is zooplankton, specifically copepods. 

Copepods are small crustaceans that are microscopic. Below you can see a zoomed in picture of what copepods look like under a microscope, enjoy how many of these basking sharks need to eat to consume their regular diet every day!

What Do Whale Sharks Eat - Copepods
A microscope’s view of copepods


Basking sharks seek out copepods but other zooplankton may also be consumed like:

Annually in the winter basking sharks shed their gill rakers. Hibernation or a change in diet are some theories to what happens until they regrow them in spring. 

How Much Do Basking Sharks Eat?

Biggest Fish in the World: Basking Shark
Filtering out hundreds of pounds of microscopic plankton per day!

Martin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock.com

Being ginormous, basking sharks need to eat a large amount of plankton to survive. Over 2,000 tons of water are filtered per hour by their gills. Since plankton is so small they must eat millions each day which can equal hundreds of pounds.

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AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and -- of course -- pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

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