Basking shark is as powerful as a great white

The world’s second largest fish can achieve the same vertical speed as a great white shark when it breaches. 

Basking shark is as powerful as a great white

Exceptional breaching events question our perception of filter-feeding basking sharks. © Youen Jacob


A team of scientists led by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Roehampton has discovered that filter-feeding basking sharks have something in common with predatory great white sharks.

The gentle giants have been recorded accelerating to 18kph before leaping about 1.2m above the surface of the water.

“This finding does not mean that basking sharks are secretly fierce predators tearing around at high speed,” says Dr Jonathan Houghton, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology at the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s.

“They are still gentle giants munching away happily on zooplankton. “It simply shows there is far more to these sharks than the huge swimming sieves we are so familiar with. It’s a bit like discovering cows are as fast as wolves.”


© Bren Whelan

Researcher Emmett Johnston attaches a CATSCAM monitoring device to a basking shark off Malin head, Ireland © Bren Whelan/Queen’s University


By filming basking sharks breaching from the Irish coastline, researchers were able to examine their extraordinary behaviour. 

A monitoring device was used to track the speed and movement of one individual, which recorded 10 tail beats within nine seconds – twice the average speed of an Olympic swimmer.

The scientists analysed video footage for basking sharks and great whites to determine the vertical swimming speeds at the moment of leaving the water. They found that basking 

Displaying, parasite removal, evasion of predators or asserting dominance could be potential causes of this behaviour. 

They found that basking sharks and white sharks breach at similar angles (typically around 75° from horizontal) and similar speeds (basking sharks: 5 m/s and great white sharks: 4.8 m/s).

Read the full paper here.

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