current concerns about the population levels of the basking shark (cetorhinus maximus) in the north-east atlantic have prompted a need to understand population distribution, habitat preference and centres of abundance. in this study, spatial distribution maps derived from satellite-tag geolocations, boat surveys and public sightings data were compared. the broad distribution patterns revealed by these different methods are similar, but there are considerable differences in density distributions. surface sightings data show high densities, or ‘hotspots’ in the hebridean sea, clyde sea, irish sea and close inshore around devon and cornwall. tag geolocations, in contrast, identified two areas where individuals spent considerable time outside the distributions indicated by surveys and public sightings: the celtic sea and western approaches of the english channel. the reason for this disparity and its implications for population estimates for the species are discussed.