The Shark Trust has confirmed the identity of the 4ft shark backbone washed up on a Bournemouth beach
A giant shark spine found near Bournemouth, Dorset, on Tuesday has been identified as a basking shark.
PBO editor Ali Wood discovered the grisly 4ft shark spine whilst cycling along the promenade in Southbourne. At first she thought it was an old tyre, and then on closer inspection it looked like a very intricate piece of plastic. However, the smell gave it away.
“It definitely belonged to something dead,” says Ali. “I wasn’t sure what creature it belonged to. Possibly a seal or a dolphin, but when I googled it, it was remarkably similar to a Great White shark spine found in Massachusetts. That’s when I knew I should go back and get it!”
World’s second largest shark
Ali took the shark spine home and sent photos and measurements to the Shark Trust, who confirmed it to be that of the second largest shark species, the 39ft basking shark (the largest species, at 46ft, being the whale shark).
Paul Cox, managing director of the Shark Trust, said, “It looks like it’s most likely a part of a basking shark vertebral column (backbone), probably the rear section. It would appear that the flesh has been scavenged and the spine has broken up and probably been brought ashore by the recent storms. It’s unusual but not unheard of… a good find.”
Basking sharks have been the target of fisheries worldwide as far back as the 18th century. Whilst shark vertebrae can be used to determine size and age, access to basking shark spines is extremely limited, and usually reduced to finds from private collections and museums.
Shark spines are rarely found on beaches because the shark’s skeleton is made of cartilage, which is much softer and lighter than bone.
Oceanarium to display shark spine
Ali has now passed the shark spine over to the Oceanarium, Bournemouth, where she’s spent a lot of time with her family watching the black tip reef sharks and zebra shark.
It is being cared for by Penguin Keeper and Education Officer Kat Nicola, who collected the specimen (wrapped up in rubble bags) from Ali’s garage. Initially Ali had kept the shark spine in the garden but it was attracting too much interest from the resident fox.
As there was a lot of flesh still attached to the spine, it’s now undergoing a degradation process. Some parts have come loose but will be reattached before it goes on display in the Oceanarium foyer.
Sea swimmers relieved
“I’m so thrilled it’s gone to a good home where people will be able to visit it and see that such a huge, special shark was swimming in their local waters,” says Ali. “I love cold water swimming and when I sent pictures to my sea swimmer friends, they were quite alarmed! Now they know it’s a basking shark they’re happy to get back in the water. I’ve swum with dolphins, seals and barrel jellyfish before, but knowing there are basking sharks out there makes it a whole new experience!”
Basking sharks in UK waters
Basking sharks visit UK waters each year between May and October and are usually observed inshore during the spring and summer. It’s possible they’ll be spotted in the Southwest of England in the next few weeks. The Shark Trust has launched a basking shark project, and will soon be launching a new Smartphone App to help people record their sightings.
“It would be fantastic if PBO readers could submit their sightings,” says Paul.
Due to their Endangered status on the IUCN Red List, monitoring, management and further research is vital to ensure their survival. The more we know about basking sharks the better equipped we are to protect them.
Where else are basking sharks found?
Basking sharks are found worldwide in temperate and boreal oceans, as well as tropical and equatorial waters. They’re recognisable by their huge mouths and large gill slits which almost encircle the head. They range in colour from grey to blue-grey and black and often have irregular white blotches on the underside of their head and abdomen.
They’re very adaptable fish, able to swim on the surface and to depths of 1,200m, in water temperatures ranging from 5 to 21 degrees. The sea temperature in Bournemouth at the time of finding the basking shark spine was 8.6°C / 47.4°F .
At birth the sharks are already 1.5 to 2m, reaching maturity (up to 12m) at the age of 18 for females and 12 to 16 for males. The gestation period is 1 to 3.5 years and females can give birth to up to 6 pups.
Considered gentle giants, basking sharks are passive filter-feeders, consuming zooplankton, crustacean larvae and fish eggs.
Where to see basking sharks in the UK
To increase your chances of seeing a basking shark, you can visit these well-known hot-spots:
- Hebrides (Skye)
- Hebrides (Mull)
- Isle of Man
- Malin Head
- Southwest England (Devon & Cornwall)
Record your sighting
If you spot a Basking Shark please record your sighting on the Shark Trust website, and include as much information as possible. If you have a photo, please submit this too. Individual basking sharks can be identified by their unique fin markings, which can be natural or scars acquired by injury or parasites.
Basking shark code of conduct
The Shark Trust has published a code of conduct to help people view basking sharks without harming them. You should not get within 100m of basking sharks. Whilst they are mostly placid they can thrash their tail with a huge amount of power if startled.
Where there are pairs or large numbers of basking sharks keep to a distance of 500m as they may be courting. Also stay away from breaching basking sharks.
Boat owners and basking sharks
When sharks are sighted, boat speed should be kept to 6 knots or below, and sailboats should switch to sail only. If boat owners find themselves within 100m of a basking shark, engines should be switched to neutral to avoid causing the shark any harm.
Paddleboarders and basking sharks
Jet-skiers should never approach a basking shark and kayakers and paddleboarders need to be careful not to encircle a basking shark, startle it or cut off its path. Stick in groups, and stay calm and quiet.
For more information on sharks and what you can do to help them, visit www.sharktrust.org
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