Rare plankton-eating basking shark spotted twice in Santa Monica Bay

By Danny Karel

Basking sharks are filter feeders (left) not often seen in local waters (right)

To spot a basking shark — a gentle giant, with gills that encircle its head and a mouth that expands to a surreal aperture — is incredibly rare. But to spot two in the course of a month, right here in Santa Monica Bay?

“It was a very special thing,” said Capt. Skip Rutzick, who operates The Duchess Yacht Charter Service out of Marina del Rey. “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.”

The first sighting occurred on March 31, three to four miles east of Moonshadows restaurant along the south-facing Malibu coast. Video footage captured by First Mate Michelle Hughes shows a large dorsal fin, followed by a smaller tail fin, meandering lazily through the bright afternoon waters. The crew followed the shark for several minutes before it submerged out of sight.

The second shark sighting happened in the early evening of April 20, in almost the exact same location. The crew was sailing to a special area where a client was planning a romantic sunset proposal. On the way, First Mate Kailyn Provin noticed two fins jutting from the dark ocean. She used her phone to capture the footage.

Fascinated but unsure what to make of the sightings, they turned to Brad Wilbourn, an underwater photographer and master diver. Wilbourn has studied ocean life for decades and has spent time swimming with countless shark varieties (except, notably, the basking shark, a testament to their scarcity).

First, he evaluated the structure and distance between the fins, which led him to believe that both animals were basking sharks between 20 and 25 feet long. Then he looked at their behavior, identical in both videos.

“They were moving very, very slow.” He said. “Basking sharks are very slow and lumbering, and they really take their time because they’re filter feeders — their mouth is wide open and they’re gathering whatever plankton they can get ahold of.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist John Hyde said that “it’s rare to see basking sharks, period,” but that a number have been recently seen around the Channel Islands, which lends further credence to Wilbourn’s identification.

In the early 20th century, it was possible to see schools containing hundreds — even thousands — of basking sharks swimming off the coast of California, but the population was drastically reduced after being targeted by fisheries and eradication programs. Basking sharks are currently listed as a Species of Concern by NOAA, meaning they would possibly qualify as an endangered species if only scientists could gather more information.

“We really don’t know much about basking sharks, especially in the Pacific,” explained Hyde. “We know that we don’t see them very often, but we also don’t see them caught in a lot of fisheries.”

While basking sharks are harmless to humans, Hyde encouraged boaters to keep their distance.

“They’re often just cruising around trying to collect food,” he said. “You don’t want to get too close with your boat because you don’t want to strike them or scare them, for their own safety.”

Those who spot a basking shark are asked to contact NOAA at (858) 334-2884.