Photo: There's hope: Canada's largest and most endangered fish spotted off Canada's West Coast

Basking shark observed off the Brooks Peninsula on Canada’s Pacific coast in August 2013. (Credit: Wendy Szaniszlo).

By Scott Wallace, Senior Research Scientist, with Wendy Szaniszlo (Marine Mammal Researcher)

Seeing a basking shark in B.C. waters these days is like seeing a sasquatch. Since 1996 there have been just 13 confirmed sightings (PDF) in Canada's Pacific waters. Basking sharks, which can grow as long as 10 metres, were once as common as a salmon. Historical accounts from the 1950s describe inlets full of hundreds of basking sharks, so plentiful they were considered a nuisance. During the 1940s to late 1960s, this shark entered into B.C. coastal waters during the spring and summer, often getting entangled in salmon fishing nets and threatening fishermen's livelihoods. Complaints led to a government-sponsored eradication program and the sharks' eventual demise. Even though I wrote a book about the history of basking sharks in B.C., I've never seen one in our coastal waters.

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On August 8 off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, researcher Wendy Szaniszlo was fortunate to observe and photograph a seven-metre long basking shark. Earlier this summer, Department of Fisheries and Oceans researchers observed a North Pacific right whale in Canadian waters, the first in over 50 years. These rare sightings give us hope that these species may yet return from the brink.

Here is Wendy's account of her sighting:

At the time of the sighting I was on the Canadian Coastguard research vessel W.E. Ricker looking for and recording marine mammals, such as humpback whales. The day I spotted the shark, it was clear and calm — idyllic conditions for observing marine mammals.

When I saw the basking shark, I knew it was something out of the ordinary. It was huge and slower and more relaxed than other sharks I'd seen. Luckily I was able to photograph the shark, though it required a leap across the bridge of the vessel and then dangling out the window.

I didn't know what kind of shark I photographed so I sent the picture to an expert at DFO to identify. I was ecstatic when I heard the news. I've been doing marine mammal work in the historical hotspots for basking sharks (Barkley and Clayoquot Sound) since 2000, spending up to six days on the water each week in the summer starting as a grad student and volunteer, then as a researcher and whale watcher. I've put in thousands of hours whale watching and have never seen a basking shark. I feel incredibly lucky to have been at the right place at the right time. It also saddens me to think that at one time these amazing animals were so numerous they were considered a pest.

If you see a shark, be sure to photograph and submit your sighting.

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September 25, 2013

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