When a 7.2-metre (24ft) basking shark was accidentally caught off the coast of Australia, the ship's captain had a quick decision to make: dump the shark overboard ... or not. In a move that warms the cockles of my dissection-loving heart, he opted to contact scientists at Museum Victoria to see what could be done with the Goliath.

Several weeks and countless hours later, museum staff have breathed new "life" into the majestic fish, offering up an unbelievably detailed 3D scan that takes us inside an ocean giant. 

Of course, we'd prefer to see the shark alive and well, but this is a great example of how successful collaboration between scientists and fishermen can make a real difference.

"These encounters can provide many of the missing pieces of knowledge that help broaden conservation," explains MV Senior Curator of Ichthyology, Dr Martin Gomon. "To the skipper’s great credit, he felt the specimen might be far more useful to science than as a food source for marine scavengers should he turf it back over the side."

Even bits and pieces of basking sharks taken in the Southern Hemisphere are rare in museum collections, so when the call came in, Gomon and his team rushed to the scene to take valuable measurements and samples. But working with such a large specimen is not easy.

The team managed to take the shark's entire 1,322-pound (600kg) head, all of its fins, and samples of the muscles, vertebrae and stomach contents – samples that can provide a map of this individual shark's life. What did it eat? Where did it live? How old was it? And where did it come from? Questions like that can finally be answered. In fact, requests for samples and data have already been pouring in from scientists around the world.

"The size and weight of the head was truly challenging," recalls Gomon. "As we had to make preparations for the [3D] scanning, we had to freeze it to prevent deterioration. Simply judging the time it would take to thaw was the source of greatest error. It took twice as much time as we had initially estimated!" 

If you can believe it, this amazingly heavy animal was still growing at the time it was caught. The second largest fish in the sea (behind whale sharks), basking sharks can reach a whopping 12 metres in length. But like their spotted cousins, they are filter feeders, and completely harmless to humans. 

Over the next two months, the team will slowly move the basking shark from its formalin (a mixture of water and formaldehyde) bath into a permanent alcohol tank, where it will remain for decades to come. The museum also plans to 3D-print a replica of the head for public display. 

"Our relationship with commercial fishers has been a continuing one of great intellectual benefit for both. A greater understanding of the biodiversity and distribution of life in our coastal waters leads to a far more firm basis for protecting our natural heritage for all."

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Image: Museum Victoria
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Image: Museum Victoria
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Image: Museum Victoria
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Image: Museum Victoria
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Image: Museum Victoria
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A view into the filter-feeder's mouth reveals the gill-slits, which allow water to pass through. Image: Museum Victoria

To see the scientists in action, check out the video below! (Please note: some may find this disturbing, proceed at your own risk).