While these two sharks share these similarities, such as being some of the largest fish in the world, they are quite different in other ways—for example, their size difference. The whale shark can grow to be up to forty feet, while on average, the basking shark grows to be around twenty-six feet. 

Basking Shark (left ) vs Whale Shark (right) Visual Comparison

The Main Differences Between a Basking Shark and Whale Shark

Here are the top five main differences between the basking shark and the whale shark: 

  • Appearance: Basking sharks are grey/brown with mottled skin and a particularly large mouth. Whale sharks are dark grey, with white spots, and have a large mouth too, to help filter feeding. Basking sharks resemble more the stereotypical shape of a shark, whereas whale sharks are flatter in shape, at their heads with the mouth at the front of their heads (than the underside).
  • Size: Basking sharks can reach 26 feet in length, compared to nearly 62 feet for the much longer whale shark.
  • Habitat: Basking sharks live everywhere, typically traveling thousands of kilometers to find plankton to feed, whereas whale sharks typically live in tropical oceans.
  • Diet: Both sharks are filter feeders, using their large mouths to swim and collect small creatures, such as zooplankton, small fish, fish eggs, and invertebrates.
  • Life span: Basking sharks can live to around 50 years, whilst whale sharks can live to nearly 130 years.

We’ll explore these differences and interesting facts about each shark more below.

Basking Shark 

The basking shark is a large shark, considered to be the largest living shark after the whale shark. Its name comes from its habit of swimming to the surface of the water and appearing to bask in the sunlight.

These sharks are usually solitary animals but have been known to congregate around the best patches of zooplankton. In these situations, social behavior has been noted. The shark is the only living member of the Cetorhinidae family. 


The basking shark can reach lengths of twenty-six feet. It’s usually grey-brown in color with mottled skin. It also has a distinctive large mouth. The sharks also have a caudal fin that is distinct in its crescent shape. The shark’s large mouth has evolved in order to make it a better filter feeder. The average weight of an adult basking shark is around 4.65 tons.

The basking shark's large mouth is used as a filter feeder
The basking shark’s large mouth is used as a filter feeder

The basking shark has a remarkable conical-shaped snout and gill slits that extend from the top to the bottom of its head. The sharks also have around 100 teeth per row


The basking shark is found around the world in temperate oceans and is known as a cosmopolitan migratory species. These sharks move thousands of kilometers during the various months of the year as they seek out the largest patches of plankton. Some migrate south during the winter. They’ve been seen around Massachusetts, the Amazon River, the Mediterranean Sea, the North and South Atlantic, and other varied areas of the Earth’s oceans. 

Usually, during the colder months, they move down to deeper depths, around 3,000 feet or 900 meters.

The basking shark has unfortunately become an endangered species, according to the IUCN Red List. The population in the Pacific Ocean is considered the most threatened. 


The basking shark is a filter feeder. This means that it opens its mouth and strains its food through a filtering structure. The basking shark feeds on zooplankton, small fish, copepods, and invertebrates in the water. It uses its gill rakers when it swims forward and opens its mouth. It can filter around 500 short tonnes of water per hour, according to Proceedings of the Royal Society.

The Basking Shark has a weird mouth which, when open, can see part of its skeletal structure
The Basking Shark has a weird mouth which, when open, can see part of its skeletal structure

Facts about Basking Sharks 

  • The shark has the lowest weight-for-weight brain size of any shark. 
  • It has become a commercially important source of food. 
  • The shark numbers are nonexistent in some places today due to overfishing
  • Basking sharks have few predators; their remains are sometimes scavenged by other sharks. 
  • They are slow-moving, like the whale shark. 
  • They can breach or jump entirely out of the water. 
  • Basking sharks’ gestation period can be over a year, sometimes up to 3 years.

Whale Shark 

The whale shark is a slow-moving shark that is the largest living shark species, followed by the basking shark and is the only living member of the genus Rhincodon.

The shark was discovered in 1828 when a fisherman speared a specimen along the coast of South Africa. It takes its name from its immense size, as large as some species of whales. It is also a filter feeder, like baleen whales. 


The largest whale shark ever recorded reached 61.7 feet or 18.8 meters. It is the largest living shark species and also the largest “non-mammalian vertebrate.” 

The shark’s mouth contains 300 rows, or more, of tiny teeth and 20 filter pads that they use to filter feed (like the basking shark). Its mouth is at the front of its head rather than the underside of its head. This is uncommon to sharks, according to Species Fact Sheet, Rhincodon typus. 

Whale shark with its mouth open
Whale shark with its mouth open

The shark’s head is large and flat, with small eyes and five large pairs of gills. These sharks are also noted for their dark grey skin that’s covered with pale grey or white spots and stripes. These are unique to each individual and set the species apart from other sharks. It also has three ridges along its sides that start behind the head and end at the caudal peduncle, or the tapered region behind the dorsal and anal fins, according to CITES


The whale shark lives in open waters, usually in tropical oceans, such as the Indian Ocean. There have only been a few sightings of the shark in water below 70 degrees F or 21 degrees C. Migration is key to the whale shark, following the warm waters all year round. The main two populations of the sharks are in the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. The latter is by far the largest, with 75% of the whole population inhabiting these tropical areas.

The whale is known to gather in large numbers during certain months of the year. One of the most significant of these gatherings was off the coast of Mexico, in Yucatan. Four hundred whale sharks were sighted. Magical events like this have sparked great human interest and ecotourism.

The whale shark is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN. Due to this, there are now conservation efforts taking place to stabilize the population. The Philippines are one of the leading countries in this area. They have minimized and banned all fishing and commercial activity surrounding the animal. However, there are still many other issues, such as oil spills and the Chinese whale shark fin and skin industry encouraging illegal hunting.


The whale shark, as noted above, is a filter feeder. This means that it feeds on small ocean-dwelling creatures like kill, plankton, fish eggs, and more. Christmas Island red crab larvae are also popular. Sometimes, the sharks also eat small fish or squid, according to BBC News. 

They are only one of three known species of filter-feeding sharks. (The basking shark and the megamouth shark are the others.) Scientists have estimated that a young whale shark can eat around 46 pounds of plankton a day, according to The Shark Research Institute. 

Both the basking and whale shark are gentle giants, posing little threat to humans and divers due to their docile temperament and lack of teeth.

Facts about Whale Sharks 

  • Whale sharks can recover well from major injuries. 
  • They are covered with white spots and stripes that are unique to each shark.
  • Whale sharks are filter feeders. 
  • They have over 300 tiny teeth. 
  • Whale sharks are the largest species of living shark. 
  • Males grow faster than females in early life but reach a smaller size in adulthood.


What is the difference between a whale shark and a basking shark?

Whale sharks are larger than basking sharks; they have a particular white pattern on their bodies and smaller mouths. Basking sharks are smaller with larger mouths. Both are slow-moving filter feeders. 

Can a basking shark eat a human?

They are large enough to eat a human, but human beings are not something the sharks are truly interested in eating. They prefer plankton.

Has anyone been killed by a basking shark?

There have been reports of an incident in which basking sharks capsized a boat off the coast of Scotland. But, incidents involving humans are incredibly rare. As a docile creature with a filter-based feeding system, it is unlikely to happen in the future.

Why is it called a basking shark?

These sharks are named “basking sharks” because of their habit of coming close to the surface and basking in the sun. 

Is there a shark bigger than a whale shark?

The simple answer is no. The whale shark is considered the largest living shark to grace the earth’s oceans. The largest-ever whale shark was a staggering 18.8 m long. They are clear of the basking shark, which is the second-largest shark in the world, at an average of 7.9 m.

About Ocean Info

At Ocean Info, we dive deep into ocean-related topics such as sealife, exploration of the sea, rivers, areas of geographical importance, sailing, and more.

We achieve this by having the best team create content - this ranges from marine experts, trained scuba divers, marine-related enthusiasts, and more.

Sea Anemone with Clownfish

Dive into more, the ocean is more than just a surface view

Shrimp vs prawn: Main differences

Shrimp vs Prawn

While these two animals look similar, there are notable main differences between shrimp and prawns, from their appearance and taste to their habitat. Read on to learn more.

Share to...