Sharks as big as buses return to California coast after 30 years away, experts say

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

It’s probably a good thing these sharks don’t have many teeth.

Basking sharks, which can reach up to 33 feet in length — about the size of a small bus — may be making a comeback off the California coast after a 30-year absence, The Ventura County Star reports.

“It was a very special thing,” said Skip Rutzick with The Duchess Yacht Charter Service in Marina del Rey, on two recent basking shark sightings, The Argonaut reported.

“I’ve been on the ocean 1,000 times in the last five years and I’ve seen many whales, I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of dolphins, and the very rare ocean sunfish the Mola mola — but to see a basking shark was very special,” Rutzick said, according to the publication.

The sightings are part of a rash of recent encounters with the slow-moving sharks off Santa Monica and Ventura, The Ventura County Star reported.

“It has really been 30 years since we’ve seen them in any numbers,” said Christopher Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at CSU Long Beach, according to the publication.

While hundreds or even thousands of basking sharks once munched (actually, filtered) plankton off California, their numbers plummeted in the 1960s, The Ventura County Star reported.

The sharks were listed as a “species of concern” in the eastern North Pacific in 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

A boating company ferrying visitors to Channel Islands National Park says it has seen up to 20 basking sharks at a time on recent trips, The Ventura County Star reported.

“I hope it’s a sign of comeback,” said Heidi Dewar, a NOAA fisheries research biologist. “But given the variability in sightings, I think we have to wait a few more years before we can say that with confidence.”

Basking sharks, whose scientific name is Cetorhinus maximus, are the second-largest species of shark after whale sharks, Sharks World reported.

The sharks feed mostly by swimming around with their mouths agape, catching plankton in their enormous gills, according to the publication. They’re well-suited to this strategy since basking sharks can open their mouths nearly 3 feet wide.

While basking sharks do have a few small, hooked teeth, the slow-swimming giants are considered harmless by most divers, Sharks World reported.

But not much is actually known about basking sharks, according to the publication.

Basking sharks declined because they were targeted by U.S. fisheries for fish meal and oil, and by Canadian fishermen who blamed the sharks for interfering with salmon fishing, the NOAA reported. Low reproductive rates are hindering a comeback despite legal protections.

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Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years. He has been a real-time reporter based at The Sacramento Bee since 2016.