Basking shark - history, photos and a unique film

(Cetorhinus maximus)



The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest fish in the world. Only the whale shark is bigger. A grown up basking shark has usually a length between 8 and 10 meters, but it can be at least 13,7 meters and weigh several tons. In spite of its size it is a harmless shark feeding on plankton. In the spring and during the summer the basking shark can be seen feeding near the surface. When feeding it swims with open mouth using its gills to filter the seawater for plankton. An adult shark filters about 2000 m3 seawater per hour. The basking shark has a worldwide distribution and can be observed alone or in shoals with other basking sharks. It appears in the northern part of the North Sea and in the Norwegian Sea from early spring to late summer. In fall thay can bee seen close to the coast before they leave and the feeding areas and spend their winter in deep waters. 

The basking shark reproduces slowly. It becomes fertile at the age of four and a pregnancy lasts for two years, resulting in not more than six "baby-sharks", each measuring about 1,5 metres in length.. 


Fishery in Norway

The hunt for the basking shark has a long history in Norway and in some parts of Great Britain. We know that in earlier times, in th 17th- and 18th century, the shark was caught with hand-harpoons from open boats near the coast. This was a dangerous hunt, and accidents happened when boats were overturned or dragged down by the force of the large sharks. The liver from the basking shark gave the fishermen valuable oil used for a lot of local purposes such as lamp oil, grease, salve, impregnation and for producing paint. In the years between The First- and Second World War the fishermen started to use sheltered vessels with engines. They were then able to hunt on the open sea. At the same time they started to use harpoon guns. This gave a more efficient hunt, and at the same time there was a growing industrial market for the oil produced from the liver of the shark. In fall the liver can represent 25% of the sharks total weight. The oil produced from the liver has special qualities regarding how to manage high temperatures. Also the fins has been used, then mainly for export to Japan. The rest of the shark (the meat) has not been used. The shark is no longer hunted in Norway. In the last 20 years basking sharks have been caught occasionally, due to the high price of the fins. This fishery has never been regulated, but changes in the Norwegian fishing-fleet, the loss of the market for the shark liver, and the decrease in the basking shark stock, has put an end to this fishery. The same happened to other important Norwegian fisheries: The porbeagle fishery and fishing for bluefin tuna. In 2006 law stopped the Norwegian hunt for basking sharks in Norwegian- and International waters.


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A single basking shark feeding near the surface. The large dorsal fin exposes the shark.

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Migration in the North East Atlantic

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This was a combined whale- and basing shark vessel. The black stripe (whaling-stripe) on the barrel in the mast tells that this vessel is allowed to hunt whales.

The greenland shark


The porbeagle fishery 


Photos from the former Norwegian hunt for basking sharks

The catch

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The photos to the left show basking shark-vessels and the hunt for basking sharks. The pohtos are from 1970-1980.

The harpoon was shot right through the shark. The shark was still very much alive as you can see. 

The fishermen had to place a bullet in the sharks head to kill it. They then moored the shark to the broadside and opened the shark. 

The liver was cut loose, and the fins were cut of. Then they let the carcase go.


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A basking shark is harpooned and tries to dive. The wire forces the shark to stay in the surface.



Photos on this page is given by: Lorentz Rolfsnes, Harald Hausken, Kjell Birger Sønstabø and Georg Tangen.

Typical Norwegian basking shark-vessel. Notice the harpoon gun on the bow. No black stripe on the barrel shows that this boat is not allowed to hunt for whale.

Norwegian basking shark-vessels in Skagen 1971. This was a special year as the shark appeared in large shoals south in the North Sea and in Skagerrak.

A vessel is slowly and carefully closing up on a shoal of basking sharks. The tip of the harpoon can be seen at the bottom of the photo.

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No sudden moves. Too close to the boat. Waiting for the shark to get in position.

The shark is only 5-6 meters from the boat when the fisherman is aiming and firing the harpoon gun.

The shark is hauled in and forced to the surface. The boat is shaking as the big shark fights back.

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The fisherman is ready with his rifle, waiting for the basing shark to expose its head.

The fisherman sees the sharks head, and fire. You can see where the bullet hits.

The shark is opened, and large knives release the liver.

The rare film below shows the hunt for basking sharks


The film above is taken on board in an ordinary Norwegian fishing vessel in the early 1970's. If the weather allowed it, they could catch several basking sharks each day. On the film you can see the bullet from the gun hitting the sharks head just before the film ends.

These vessels and the fishermen had a hard time during the 1970's due to overfishing of the Norwegian spring spawning herring and the decline in the bluefin tuna stock. 

You may also be interested in seeing a film of a Norwegian fishing vessel (purse seiner) fishing bluefin tuna in 1967

Back to main page    Other fisheries:    The greenland shark      The porbeagle fishery


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