Gentlest Shark In The World Was Almost Slaughtered To Extinction
Earlier this week, a research boat patrolling Canada's west coast caught a glimpse of an undersea mammoth lurking just below the water's surface.
The sighting sent a tsunami of excitement throughout the scientific community.
Could it be? Could the leviathan finally be returning to Canadian waters?
It's been a long, brutal century for the ancient fish known as the basking shark. These massive but peaceful sharks have all but disappeared from the North Pacific thanks to decades of government-sanctioned slaughter.
Finding one of these sharks today may seem somewhat like stumbling upon a mythical beast.
And the basking shark certainly plays the part, looking every inch like a creature who sprang from some ancient mariner's imagination.
Seen from the surface, they're easily mistaken for whales or other sharks. But the real glory of a basking shark is just under those waves. They patrol the waters with massive jaws propped wide open. Like vast caverns lined with tiny, hook-like teeth, they swim slowly in order to consume as many tiny creatures - plankton, mostly - as they can.
Basking sharks are the second biggest fish on the planet, growing up to 40 feet long and weighing 21 tons.
According to fossil records, they've plied the oceans for the last 30 million years. But it wasn't until the mid-20th century that they began to run afoul of humans - and the days of these gentle giants suddenly appeared numbered.
In the 1940s, British Columbia authorities routinely put out bounties on basking sharks.
Not long after that, they upped the ante and outfitted boats with giant blades. Positioned at the bow, the boats would literally dice sharks in the water.
The eradication program officially lasted 14 years. It still casts a vast shadow over the North Pacific - an ocean expanse once teeming with basking sharks is now nearly devoid of them.
Their numbers are, in fact, so low, you might forgive marine scientists for treating the sight of one as something of a unicorn.
Coupled with a federal decree that named the animals "destructive pests," it wasn't long before the basking shark population evaporated under the onslaught.
In 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put their population in the North Pacific at no more than 500.
"In the bays and inlets of British Columbia, where thousands were reported in the early 1990s, only six sharks have been documented since 1996," the organization notes in a fact sheet.
Throughout most of the world, the species is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. But in Canadian waters, where the eradication program was active, the basking shark is considered endangered - a designation that suggests an even more severe population decline.
Indeed, basking sharks have paid a terrible price for their mystique. They were nearly slaughtered into extinction. They came brutally close to becoming the sea monsters of fishermen's tales.
If the lone shark spotted on the central coast of British Columbia is any indication, they just may be poised for a return. And if that happens, this time, they won't be greeted with blades.