Cape Town — WITH a mouth that size, you'd think the appropriately-named megamouth shark would have been inclined to boast about its existence.
But in fact the first of these timid, secretive creatures was only discovered at Oahu in Hawaii in November 1976, and to date only another 15 have been found - until the weekend, when number 17 washed up on the beach at Nature's Valley near Plettenberg Bay.
Others have been found in California, Australia, Japan, Senegal, southern Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia and in the East Indian Ocean.
Although the megamouth is one of three filter-feeding sharks - the others are the basking shark and whale shark - scientists had to create an entirely new shark family, genus and species to accommodate it.
Among the first to see the creature on Nature's Valley beach was former Cape Town advertising executive Beefy Mance who, with his wife Tish, now runs a shop and restaurant there.
"At first I was thought it was a whale shark, then later someone said they thought it was a megamouth shark," Mance said .
"I checked it out on theinternet and it sure looked like a megamouth.
So I e-mailed some photographs I took to Dr Vic Cockroft at the MTN Centre for Dolphin Studies in Plettenberg Bay, who also initially thought it was a whale shark.
"He said he would fetch it for further research, and when he arrived and saw it, he was also convinced that it was a megamouth."
Mance said they had struggled to get the 3.5m creature, which weighed about 300kg, on to the back of Cockroft's bakkie.
An excited Cockcroft said the washed-up specimen was a female, which was particularly exciting.
"As a result of their scarcity, we know next to nothing of their biology and reproductive habits.
"And this is the first one ever to be seen anywhere near South Africa, and only one or two scientists have ever had the opportunity to study a female megamouth."
Cockcroft said marine scientist Malcolm Smale from the Port Elizabeth Museum had driven down early on Sunday to collect the shark.
"He will, after careful preparation, dissect this rare animal to give us a few more scraps of knowledge.
"We are truly blessed with the variety of life our land and sea nurtures.
South Africa - where else can one experience so much on land and so much at sea?"
The megamouth is considered to be even less active and a poorer swimmer than either of its two distant relatives.
Scientists learnt something about the ecology of the species when the sixth megamouth to be found was captured live.
This specimen was tagged and followed for two days, allowing insight into its habitat preference and behaviour.