Art. XVIII.—Notice of the Occurrence of the Basking Shark (Selache maxima,L.) in New Zealand.
[Read before the Auckland Institute, 6th October, 1890.]
In November, 1889, an unusually large shark, measuring over 34ft. in length, was exhibited for a few days at Devonport. It had been stranded near the mouth of the Wade River, where it and another had been noticed for some days previous. Some enterprising individuals secured it, and towed it to Devonport, partly with the hope of earning a few pounds by exhibiting it to the Auckland public, and partly to extract the oil from the liver, that organ containing in sharks, as is well known, a large supply of valuable oil. Being by far the largest ever exhibited in Auckland, it attracted considerable attention. I was unable to visit it for a day or two, and, as reports were circulated that it had large triangular teeth, I felt confident that it was an unusually large specimen of the White Shark (Carcharodon rondeletii), which visits our coasts every summer. When an inspection of the specimen was made, however, a glance showed that it was not that species. The body was of enormous girth, giving it a very different appearance from the rather slenderly-built white
shark, and the shape of the fins and tail was also different. With some little trouble its mouth was prised open, disclosing the fact that its teeth, instead of being large, were excessively small and numerous. Further examination proved that it was an individual of the Basking Shark (Selache maxima), which is perhaps the largest of all fishes, and which is common in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere. In southern waters it is only known from a single specimen, caught at Portland, on the western coast of Victoria, in November, 1883, and which has been figured and described by Professor McCoy in his “Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria” (vol. ii., p. 12).
Unfortunately, my specimen was in much too advanced a stage of decomposition to permit of complete measurements being taken—in fact, it was with difficulty that a spectator could remain near it for more than a few minutes at a time. Its total length, from the tip of the snout to the end of the upper lobe of the tail, was 34ft. 3in.; girth at the middle of the body, 20ft. 9in.; height of first dorsal fin, 5ft. 1in.; depth of pectoral, 5ft. 6in.; width across the tail, from tip to tip of the lobes, 7ft. 2in. From these measurements it will be seen that its size is much in excess of Professor McCoy's specimen, the total length of which was 30ft. 6in.
Mr. R. H. Shakspere, of Whangaparaoa, who saw the specimen very shortly after it was stranded, informs me that every spring several individuals of the same species can be seen near the entrance of the Wade River, and along the shores of Whangaparaoa Peninsula. He believes that they visit these localities in search of their food, which he thinks is composed of small Medusæ and other pelagic organisms. They can be easily recognised from their habit of swimming on the surface of the water, a portion of the back and the huge dorsal fin being usually exposed. It is from this circumstance, taken with the fact that their motions are very often slow and sluggish, that they have received the name of the “basking shark.” They are easily approached and harpooned, and on the west coast of Ireland as many as five hundred have been taken in a single season. The liver often weighs as much as two tons, yielding six to eight barrels of oil. A few years ago, when sharks' oil was of greater value than it is at present, the oil from a single full-sized specimen would often realise from £40 to £50.