The Italian Almanac
The Italian Coast Guard spotted a rare baby shark in the waters off Taranto, a city in the arch of Italy's foot. The basking shark is the second-largest shark in the world, after the whale shark, is on the watch list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and is a protected species under the Barcelona Convention, a treaty to protect the Mediterranean signed in 1976.
The baby was nearly five metres in length, but could grow as long as ten metres as an adult and reach a weight of 3,500 to 4,500 kilograms. Despite its frightening size, the basking shark poses little danger to people, eating algae, plankton and other minute animals living just under the water's surface. If disturbed or attacked, however, the basking shark's mere size can pose danger, and its sandpaper-like skin can cause serious abrasions.
The shark gets its name from its tendency to hover at shallow depths, collecting food, as though it were "basking" in the sun. In Italian, it is called an "elephant shark" for its long, conical snout, which resembles an elephant's trunk. The shark filters its miniscule prey through its gaping maw, sluicing its stomach with up to half a metric ton of eggs, tiny fish and crustacean larvae.
To find the massive quantities of nourishment it requires, the basking shark swims thousands of kilometres for seasonal migrations, tracking plankton blooms, living both alone and in sex-segregated groups. The basking shark swims slowly, at about two knots or 3.7 kilometres per hour, often with its dorsal fin gleaming above the surface as it glides along coastal waters.
Historically, the basking shark was important to fisheries because of its slow swimming speed, unaggressive nature and once-abundant numbers. It was eaten or used for fishmeal, while its hide was used for leather, and liver for oil. In some parts of the world, its fins are still used for shark-fin soup. Its cartilage is used in Chinese medicine and as an aphrodisiac in Japan.
In the Mediterranean, however, its main threat is accidental death from motorboats, fishing lines, drift nets, trawlers and traps.