They are affectionately known as the “gentle giants” of Earth’s oceans.
Now basking sharks are set to get extra protection from the increasing threat of human activity, with the world’s first protected area for the creatures proposed off the west coast of Scotland.
The Marine Protected Area (MPA) would span a zone between the east coast of the Western Isles and the west coasts of Skye, Mull and the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
Basking sharks are the world’s second largest fish and migrate to the rich waters off the Scottish coast each summer, travelling from as far away as the Canary Islands.
Large groups gather in the Hebrides between May and October, feeding on the plentiful plankton supported by the mixing of nutrient-rich cold waters with the warmer surface.
Despite being a protected species in Scotland since 1998, they are still considered “vulnerable”.
Basking sharks are threatened by entanglement in fishing gear, motorised boat traffic and microplastics.
The Sea of the Hebrides MPA is the largest of four new conservation areas being proposed by the Scottish Government in the nation’s waters, with others planned near the Isle of Lewis and off the Aberdeenshire coast.
Conservation charities are now urging members of the public to show their support for the plans by responding to a consultation that expires at the end of August. If approved, the new MPA would be the world’s first protected area for basking sharks, with controls potentially placed on harmful activities such as creel fishing and wildlife watching.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust and Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said the animals could become entangled in fishing gear or accidentally caught as bycatch, as well as being accidentally struck by boats carrying wildlife enthusiasts.
Calum Duncan, head of Scottish conservation at the MCS, said it was unclear why no other countries had created a protected area for basking sharks before now.
“What we have here in Scotland is really fantastic evidence of these waters being extremely important for this animal,” he said.
Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the world, growing up to 12m long and weighing up to seven tonnes.
Their populations declined in the 20th century due to widespread hunting. They were prized for the oil in their huge livers, which can account for 25 per cent of their body weight.
Despite their giant size and slow swimming speed of around 3mph, they can leap more than 1m out of the water.
Recent surveys have shown that hundreds of sharks gather in Hebridean waters each summer, swimming together nose-to-tail or side-by-side and sometimes leaping out the water.
Mr Duncan stressed that conservationists were not seeking a “blanket ban” on activities like creel fishing or wildlife-watching, but they might be limited in areas where the sharks are known to gather.
Dr Sam Collin, marine planning manager at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: “Basking sharks are only in Scottish seas for around six months of the year, but it is vital that we do all we can to protect them from harm.”