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There are few things that beachgoers fear more than that dark, triangular shape skimming the water’s surface. With movies like Jaws and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, sharks have smoothly glided into mainstream culture. Horror stories and newspaper articles of shark attacks abound, s0 it’s no wonder there’s a paranoia surrounding them. However, not every shark is a human-hungry predator. Though Great Whites do make the occasional appearance, most sightings end up being none other than the relatively harmless Basking Shark.

Though they look extremely similar at first glance, there are a few key differences to look for before reporting a sighting. The dorsal fin of the Great White is a sharply-edged triangle. Comparatively, the dorsal fin of the Basking Shark is a triangle as well, it is slightly rounded at the apex.

Shark fin

Basking Sharks can range from brown to gray to black, are often spotted and uniform in color. The Great White by comparison has two distinct color variants of  black or gray on top and white on the bottom. Additionally, Basking Sharks have very large, visible gills that encircle their head, whereas the gills of the Great White aren’t as visible.

Basking Shark

Great Whites rarely exceed 20 feet in length, so if the shark sighted is larger than that, chances are that it is probably a Basking Shark. Finally, Basking Sharks feed on plankton while Great Whites feast on marine mammals and other sea creatures.

If you spot something alarming, stay alert, cautious and remember these important differences. For more information, watch the below created by the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF). For general shark safety tips during the summer, check out this post.

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