Shark With Huge Tail Found Washed Up on Beach in 'Rare' Find

A strange shark with a remarkably large tail was found washed up on a beach in South Africa in a "very rare" sighting.

Wildlife photographers Alex and Juanita Aitkenhead stumbled across the shark's carcass during a visit to Sunset Beach in Cape Town last Tuesday. The pair captured several photographs of the animal, which they identified as a juvenile common thresher shark.

These sharks, which can reach up to around 20 feet in length as adults, are known for their enormous, scythe-like tail fins. The upper lobe of their fins makes up about half of the total body length.

A washed up common thresher shark
The common thresher shark that washed up on Sunset Beach, Cape Town, South Africa. The shark was photographed by Alex Aitkenhead, who made the rare sighting. Alex Aitkenhead/

Known scientifically as Alopias vulpinus, the common thresher is the largest of the three species of thresher shark in the family Alopiidae. Aside from the huge tail fin, the species is characterized by its streamlined body, short, pointed snout and moderately sized eyes.

Common thresher sharks are found around the world in tropical and temperate waters. They usually congregate in the open ocean, but the sharks also sometimes come closer to shore. The species is most abundant within around 40 miles of the shore, according to Oregon State University.

Thresher sharks have remarkable abilities. They can use their long tails to herd fish, before using them to stun and kill them. They are also capable of jumping fully out of the water—one of the few sharks with this ability—a behavior that is known as breaching.

Common thresher shark on Sunset Beach
The common thresher shark on Sunset Beach in Cape Town, South Africa. These sharks have unusually long tails that account for around half their total body length. Alex Aitkenhead/

Alex Aitkenhead told Newsweek that he recognized the shark when he came across it on the beach but said he had "never seen one before."

"At the time we did not realize the significance of such a find as we know this shark," Aitkenhead said. "This shark was in a very good state—no damage or any sign of injuries or predation. The only noticeable point was that the eyes were missing, but this is common."

This suggests that the shark had been in the water for a day or two after it died, providing an opportunity for smaller fish to eat the eyes, the softest part of its body, according to Aitkenhead.

Close up of a common thresher shark
A close up shot of the common thresher shark that washed up in Cape Town, South Africa. This species is found around the world in tropical and temperate waters. Alex Aitkenhead/

Sightings of the shark such as the one washed up on Sunset Beach are "very rare" in the region, Aitkenhead said. It has been several years since a thresher shark washed ashore in Cape Town.

"It's not often we get to see this remarkable shark," Aitkenhead told IOL News. "I'm not sure why this juvenile washed up on our shores at Sunset Beach."

Deputy Mayor of Cape Town Eddie Andrews concurred that it is not common for this species to wash ashore in the area.

All three thresher shark species are listed as "vulnerable" to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, with some populations thought to be in decline.

These sharks are deliberately targeted for their valuable meat and fins but are also caught accidentally by fishing operations.