The basking shark is the second biggest shark in the world, with the largest specimen ever recorded measuring an impressively large 12.27 meters (40.3 feet) long. They also possess a jaw that can open up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in width. That sounds pretty dangerous, right?
Wrong! In terms of ever attacking, biting, or deliberately injuring humans, basking sharks are NOT dangerous.
These are giant fish with famously rough skin and huge tails that could give you quite a bash if you got too close while snorkeling with one. However, no basking shark attacks have ever been recorded.
So, as long as you behave respectfully and don’t get too close, or worse, touch, there’s no need to worry if you should ever come across one of these rare giants.
Are Basking Sharks Dangerous or Aggressive?
Let’s face it, to many people, sharks have a bad reputation for being dangerous and aggressive.
In reality, incidents between sharks and people are thankfully very rare, and they only tend to involve a very few of the over 500 species.
They may be the second largest shark in the ocean. However, basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) are peaceful, slow-moving creatures that don’t show any aggression or present any danger to people.
Most likely, this is because of what the shark likes to eat.
What Do Basking Sharks Eat?
When you check out our list of the most giant sharks in the world, you might be surprised to learn that the top three are all filter feeders.
Like the even more enormous whale shark (Rhincodon typus), or the typically slightly smaller and incredibly rare megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios), the basking shark has reached its impressive size solely by sifting microscopic food from the ocean.
The basking shark’s diet is zooplankton which could be tiny fish or, most commonly, small crustaceans called copepods.
The basking shark is a dedicated ram feeder, and it will swim slowly, generally close to the surface, with its enormous mouth wide open to filter food through its gill rakers from vast volumes of water every hour.
The behavior of feeding at the surface has given the shark its common name. The shark moves so slowly it appears to be basking and enjoying the warmer surface waters without a care in the world.
So, because of what it eats, the basking shark doesn’t need or possess the ability to be dangerous or attack people.
Did a Basking Shark Ever Attack a Human?
Having learned that basking sharks aren’t aggressive, it’s still fair to ask if they have EVER attacked humans.
We’ve searched high and low and cannot find any incident of a basking shark ever actually attacking someone.
There is, however, one account from September 1937 of a basking shark being involved in human fatalities.
It was believed that the shark capsized a 4.5 meter (15 foot) dinghy when it surfaced from below it in the sea off Port Righ, Argyll, Scotland. Sadly, three people were killed, having either drowned or suffered heart attacks in the water.
So, the answer to the question “Has a basking shark ever killed a human” may technically be yes, depending on how you look at it.
But it seems fair to say that this incident was a dreadful accident caused by being in the wrong place rather than any sort of actual attack by the shark.
Basking sharks have been observed breaching entirely out of the water in an attempt to dislodge parasites. It could have been that the shark was engaging in this behavior, and the boat was unfortunately in the way.
With their bulk and shape, basking sharks have also often been mistaken for great white sharks. So it could be that any reported incidents may be from misidentification.
Could a Basking Shark Bite or Accidentally Swallow a Human?
After discovering that they don’t deliberately attack people, what about accidental basking shark attacks?
Can a basking shark eat a human? Even accidentally?
The basking shark’s mouth is 1 m (3 ft 3 in) wide when it’s fully open, so it’s easy to think that if you did manage to get in the way as it feeds, you could get swallowed.
However, you don’t need to be concerned.
Remember that basking sharks are filter feeders and only eat microscopic zooplankton.
Accordingly, while they may have a cavernous mouth, its digestive tract is not large enough to swallow a person.
If you somehow managed to get in the shark’s mouth, it would just spit you out in the same way it does if it accidentally swallows a piece of ocean garbage. You would never reach a basking shark’s stomach!
As for bites, these also aren’t a reason to worry. While the basking shark possesses some teeth, they’re only about 5–6 mm (0.20–0.24 in) tall and non-functioning, having lost their use long ago as the shark evolved. The basking shark literally cannot bite you!
What Would You Do if You Encounter a Basking Shark?
Are basking sharks harmless? Or is there anything we should worry about if we see one?
Well, they’re huge fish that can weigh as much as 5,000 kg (11,023 lb). For this reason, anyone encountering one at sea must treat them with respect.
It’s always a good idea for smaller boats to stay a safe distance from basking sharks. Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards should take particular care as it would be easy for the shark to capsize them accidentally.
As we’ve already mentioned, the shark can breach from below, so you should make sure you’re paying attention at all times and consider wearing a personal flotation device if there’s a chance you may end up in the water.
Codes of conduct vary from area to area, but generally, it’s suggested to keep motor boats 100m (328 ft) from the sharks and to switch the engine to neutral to avoid injuring the shark if it gets within 10m (33 ft).
Divers or snorkelers often find that basking sharks are curious and may come quite close to them.
But it’s important never to touch the shark as its skin is extremely rough and can cause nasty cuts that can quickly become infected.
Similarly, keeping a reasonable distance is a good idea, as an accidental collision with the shark’s fins could be very painful. Generally, it’s recommended to stay a minimum of 4m (13 ft) away for safety.
Basking sharks are considered to be endangered worldwide with a decreasing global population. If you are lucky enough to see one, treat these magnificent creatures with the respect and awe they deserve.
Do Basking Sharks Have Teeth?
Basking sharks have about 1,500 small hooked teeth in their huge mouths that are about 5–6 mm (0.20–0.24 in) tall and curved backward.
However, they don’t seem to serve any function as the shark is a filter feeder. These teeth are probably left over from evolution, and you don’t need to worry about getting bitten.
Why Can’t You Touch a Basking Shark?
You don’t want to touch a basking shark as you may harm it, and it may hurt you. The shark is covered in sharp dermal denticles, which can easily cause damage to your skin in the form of cuts, abrasions, and possible skin infections.
Are basking sharks dangerous? Thankfully no.
The basking shark is one of the wonders of nature, and thankfully you don’t need to worry about these docile creatures being dangerous.
Despite being the second largest shark species in the world, basking sharks feed on tiny zooplankton and definitely don’t hunt humans.
However, their massive size means that you should always treat the basking shark respectfully if you encounter one.
Motorboats should keep a reasonable distance to avoid hurting the shark, and smaller craft should be aware that the giant fish could accidentally cause them to capsize.
Swimmers, snorkelers, or scuba divers must keep a safe distance as the shark could hurt them in an accidental collision. Similarly, the filter feeding sharks skin is extremely rough and could cause painful cuts to anyone who comes into contact with it.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.