Top Ten Sharks #3 – The Basking Shark, Cetorhinus maximus

The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximum) with it’s mouth agape showing us it is feeding. Some suggest these shark has ‘no teeth’ which is nonsense. Since the entire skin tissue is basically made of teeth there is no such thing as a ‘toothless shark’. In this case the teeth are very small, numbering up to 100 per row, on both the upper and lower jaw. (Credit: Greg Skomal / NOAA Fisheries Service – Public Domain)

It’s a shark that basks. What more do you want to know about it?

There is a homely beauty to the basking shark, a pretty much uniform grey-brown goliath that fades towards the belly and cruises the seas. They have a tendency to feed near the surface, hence their name. It is one of only three known filter-feeding shark species, along with the megamouth shark and the whale shark.

It’s a migrator. It’s a crazy migrator. Known as a ‘cosmopolitan’ migrator that doesn’t mean it swims to the nearest centre of fashion magazines. It means that if it’s in its potential territory is may swim there, following food, and just about the entirety of the ocean, excluding the poles, are basking shark territory. They prefer cooler water but have been known to cross the tropics on their migrations. So these giant, docile nomads just swim about eating and that’s their life.

Lucky bastards.

The basking shark also has a unique method of feeding compared to the other two kinds of filter-feeding shark. The whale shark and megamouth like to gulp-feed, they will approach a patch high in krill of planktonic organisms and suck them in, taking a big gulp in the process and squishing out that excess water to separate it from the food.

A more front on shot of the basking shark feeding. It’s gill slits almost go around the whole head and neck, to provide more area for the bony structures, the gill-rakers (the little ribs seen in the image) that filter the food out of the water. A basking sharks gape can be over 1m and it uses ‘ram feeding’ – just swimming through the water with its mouth open, unlike the other two filter feeder sharks, the megamouth and the whale shark, who are both known to use suction and gulping actions. (Credit: jidanchaomian CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Basking sharks just hang their gobs open and swim. Patrolling the world’s oceans with a near permanent look of surprise, as if you’ve just told them that their friend Ray was seen having it away with Mandy Manta down behind the reefs. It’s known as ‘ram feeding’ which also makes it sound somewhat sexual.

I think you’re beginning to see why the basking shark makes it so high up my list!

It’s the second largest extant fish species in the world right now, too, as if things couldn’t get any better. Wait, though, because they do, especially if you are from the UK because they mainly like to hang around in temperate to chilly waters and are known visitors to the UK’s waters. They often swim close to shore so your chances of interacting with one of these filter-feeding behemoths are not out of the question. I happen to know that they have been sighted in the waters near me! They are very often seen off the South-West and are also known around the Hebrides to the far, far north of the British Isles.

It’s like the shark that’s a friend and neighbour to everyone. The only time you’ll hear of a ‘shark attack’ from a basking shark is when some idiot gets too close and literally rubs the shark the wrong way, unsurprisingly a skin made up for tiny teeth brushing you in the wrong direction whilst attached to a slow moving, 8m (20 feet) long titan of a fish is liable to cause you a nasty graze.

The fin and distorted underwater image of a basking shark off Padstow Bay, in the South West of the UK. They are known visitors to all of our waters, with the Western, Atlantic coasts being you best chance of spotting them. (Credit; Ian Andrews CC-BY-SA 2.0)

One thing that we’ve learned about basking sharks that is incredibly surprising is that they can take their usually pedestrian cruising speed, somewhere around 3-4km/h or 2mph, and throw it out of the window to accelerate rapidly, breaching, much like the great white, at closer to 40km/h or 25mph. We’ve got no idea why they do this! Theories include ridding themselves of skin-clinging parasites (sometimes they roll in the surf and this is suspected there too) or possibly some kind of communication or courtship behaviour but, either way it is impressive.

They are not indiscriminate feeders, either. By some studies they appear to have an incredibly selective palate, their diet consisting mostly of the zooplankton (small animal species) known as copepods. Copepods are small arthropods – the same phylum as the insects – so basically sea-bugs. Copepods, though, are a large group. Specifically they seem to feed on calanoid copepods.

A canloid copepod. These tiny organisms are what sustain the massive basking shark. (Credit: Public Domain)

So the second largest fish in the sea, that travels very slowly but can accelerate when it wants, also appears to have a very picky palate. Whatever next?

Well honestly, that’s about it but is that not enough? We’re talking a plankton-fuelled, globe-trotting giant fish, what more do you need to be impressed? Does it need to do card tricks for you? Do is it need to do your tax assessments?

We could talk about how it is a deliberately overfished species for its fin, meat and liver oil but then what? We have another chat about how we’re members of the most vile, self-centred and obnoxious species that ever lived and go home unhappy? I’ve got a better idea.

It might not seem it, since I’m a sole site manager, writer, editor, copy-editor, commissioning editor, social media manager and brand manager of We Lack Discipline, and since I started seriously for the WLD back in late January I basically haven’t stopped working. I’m writing this now at 1:30am. I know it might not seem like it but I thoroughly enjoy leisure time.

Studies show that adequate rest, relaxation, regular breaks, holidays, naps, time off etc. is all good for a person. It literally can make people more productive. I know, time off, relaxation and a nap can make people more productive? It seems wrong until you actually think about it. What do you want? A bunch of people working 48 hour weeks, tired, sluggish, unhappy, unmotivated and pissed off to be working with you? Or a bunch of people working 28 hour weeks who are well-rested, energetic, cheerful, motivated and put their backs into everything they do because they enjoy it?

Productivity in the United Kingdom could learn a lot from the basking shark. We’ve got it twisted. We work too hard, play too little and think you don’t have a real job unless you hate it. Meanwhile, basking shark is out here and what’s basking shark up to? Eh, just swimmin’ and eatin’ boss.

The blue areas are known, comfortable ranges for basking sharks. – Though they have been known to cross the tropics to get to other, temperate waters they seem to prefer temperate ranges of 8-15°C. (Credit: Maplab CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I’ve met very few people happy to just be. I’ve seen graffiti around my town that says “Are you living, or just existing?” and I have to ask what’s wrong with the latter? Just ‘existing’ is what organisms have been doing for billions of years and they didn’t have a problem with it. ‘Living’ – now that’s the lie. Take that lie and apply it to basking sharks, suddenly they’re all killing each other over who gets the ‘best’ patch of plankton, who lives in the nicest part of the sea or what their idea of good feed is. ‘Living’ is the thing humans invented to escape the fact that most of the time all they are doing is just ‘existing’.

It covers up insecurities about ‘wasting time’ and ‘achieving potential’. You’re always active, fundamental cellular activity takes care of that. If you can switch your brain off then more power to ya, you can waste time. Most of us can’t. We’re always taking stuff in, learning, pattern-forming, growing. The human doesn’t stop. As for ‘achieving potential’ what the fuck does that even mean? I’ve got the potential to send a stream of piss twenty feet into the air, doesn’t mean I should aspire to it. Equality of opportunity would be a nice thing to strive for but for now we unfortunately live in a competition society. Telling people to feel bad for not ‘achieving their potential’ is a very good way to shift the blame of that failure to the individual rather than the society that stifles individuals in the name of selectivism, especially when the competition is rigged and cronyism and nepotism rule supreme.

The basking shark doesn’t care. It’s probably got the potential to eat twice as much if it swam faster. It doesn’t care. It could probably eat a fish ten-thousand times the size of the copepods it loves. It doesn’t care. It could ‘live’, but instead is happy to ‘exist’. It swims, it eats, once in a while it does a jump, and sometimes it fucks. They seem perfectly happy doing it.

A short video about basking shark breaching. Because basking sharks don’t care if they’re ‘living’ or ‘existing’, basking sharks just want to bask and shark. (Credit: Science Magazine)

I’ve got no problem with ambition, but people forget that when you want to scramble to the top of the pile of humans you have to tread on 8 billion others.

There are people out there right now spending their time working hard to climb the top of a pile they don’t even want to be top of. Ambition’s great when you’ve got a certain, personal, particular vision but that’s not true for everyone, is it? For some people it’s a vague concept, it’s power, money, manipulation, a bigger house, a better car – material ‘things’. Is that ‘living’? And what’s the benefit? Biologically you may exhibit your secondary traits of fitness, improving your chance of reproductive success but we’re humans, not lizards. We don’t pop our young out and leave them be. We don’t mate and piss off. We pair bond, we form family groups, extended families, tribes of friends and families. What if your ambitions are destroying all that? What’s the point then? You’re not existing, you’re not living, what you’re doing is fucking up. If there’s no greater vision, no greater meaning than just ‘success’ you’re losing, no matter how much you win.

Be more basking shark. Be a little happier to just swim about travelling and eating. Be happier with just your existence because, the institutions come and go, buildings rise and crumble, cultures wax and wane like so many moons, but your being is all the experience, as far as we know, that you get.

I’ve had to hug a lot of unhappy people in my life, all of them wanting something more and somehow not being able to get it, usually through nothing more than bad luck, because their hard work sure deserved it.

I love these big, grey, docile derps. With their big fins to help them cruise through the water with ease, that gaping, shocked mouth and their little pointed snoot. The basking shark is so lovable. They’re so placid they are known to not move out of the way of oncoming boats! They don’t care! There’s a lot we could learn from sharks. When we use ‘shark’ in terms of human behaviour we always mean predatory, mean, ruthless, aggressive. We never mean placid, comfortable and happy to just be. I think we should, because all sharks seem to exhibit that behaviour in the wild. (Credit: Green Fire Productions CC-BY-2.0)

I’ve never had to hug a shark to make it feel better about itself. If I ever hug a shark, it’ll be to make me feel better. The shark is likely to be indifferent at best, uncomfortable expected or, at worst, hostile. I’d definitely never have to hug a basking shark to make it feel better.

I bet when this Top Ten Sharks started you didn’t think you’d get Basking Shark Existential Philosophy. Welcome to why it’s our number 3 shark, and welcome to We Lack Discipline. We live differently here.

Want to dive deeper into some aquatic shark content?
Our Introduction will give you the basics of shark biology, ecology and natural history.
#10 – The massive, magnificent megalodon – a prehistoric giant!
#9 – The beautiful and quick blue shark
#8 – Known for it’s spiral of jagged teeth, Helicoprion – the Buzzsaw shark!
#7 – The frilled shark, a mysterious living fossil with much to tell us about sharks past.
#6 – The Great White, Apex predator, whale scavenger, more intelligent than we thought.
#5 – The Megamouth Shark – One that tells us more about what we don’t know!
#4 – The Graceful Hammerhead family – Much overfished, and is one a veggie?

#2 – The longest living vetebrate on earth – The Greenland Shark

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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