A round this time of year, Britain’s red top newspapers cease consuming their normal diet of celebrity gossip and ‘want-away’ footballers and target an entirely different prey base. Often for just a day or two, they feed voraciously on highly nutritious stories originating from areas of Britain, such as Devon and Cornwall, popular with holidaymakers, sinking their tabloid teeth into stories that involve sharks.
And not just any sharks – the papers’ sub-editors invariably attribute grainy photographs of 1.5m (5ft) dorsal fins cutting through the sea as proof that the world’s most terrifying predator, the great white shark, exists in British waters.
Of course, the fins really belong to basking sharks, harmless filter-feeders that eat nothing bigger than peas and yet grow to more than 10m (32ft) in length. Only an idiot – or a tabloid journalist – would suggest that 7m (23ft) killing machines with teeth as long as your index finger and as sharp as razor blades can be found off Padstow or Portree.
Except, they can – or were. British shark expert Richard Peirce obtained evidence of this in 2012, after a Scottish lobster fisherman found a large, serrated tooth embedded in his creel pot. Peirce identified it as belonging to a great white – but, crucially, it was also a fossil about 10,000 years old.
This doesn’t mean that this apex predator has disappeared entirely from our shores. Richard has logged about 100 sightings of great whites, of which he assesses about 10 to be credible. In July 2005, for example, a teacher called Philip Harding from the Outer Hebrides was leading a small party of anglers when they saw a 5m (16ft) shark that he identified as a great white off North Uist. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t get great whites in our waters,” Peirce says. “They are a mirror image of the seas around South Africa, and great whites are thriving there. There are plenty of seals. They should be here.”
Other shark experts agree. Ken Collins, a senior research fellow at the National Oceanography Centre, says the problem – if you see this as a problem – is that great white numbers are heavily depleted all round the world, and Britain is already at the edge of their range. So, the odd vagrant turns up but nothing more.
But basking sharks are definitely here. They are seen regularly off the south-west and Wales and around the Isle of Man, but the two biggest hotspots are between the Hebridean islands of Coll and Tiree and around the rocky islet of Hyskeir off the west coast of Rum.
Colin Speedie, who ran basking shark surveys
for many years in the 1990s and 2000s, was the first person to prove that these two areas are, sometimes quite literally, awash with these ocean giants. “I once saw 93 sharks in one day,” he says.
“I can’t think of anywhere in the world where you can see basking sharks as consistently as you can in UK waters.”
Basking shark or sea monster?
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a rich seam of basking shark stories in British history. On 1 September 1937, three men drowned off the Kintyre Peninsula when their boat was capsized by a huge basker, while in 1808, a man fishing off Stronsay in the Orkney Islands found the carcass of what looked like a sea monster resembling the extinct plesiosaur. It had a small head, a long neck and three pairs of legs or flippers.
In fact, it was the remains of a basking shark, though at 16.7m (54ft) long, it was one and a half times bigger than any that have been seen since. The explanation of its strange appearance is that when basking sharks die, their massive jaws and gill rakers detach from the body, leaving the long plesiosaur-like neck, while the extra pair of flippers are the ‘claspers’ that sharks possess for mating.
The British naturalist Gavin Maxwell – author of Ring of Bright Water – briefly tried to make his fortune out of basking sharks. “Maxwell was a fabulous writer but a terrible businessman and he bankrupted himself with a crackbrained idea for hunting sharks,” says Colin Speedie. “He had all sorts of ideas – for extracting their oil, to get insulin from the livers, to pickle their flesh, but the whole thing was a disaster.” He did manage to write his first book, Harpoon at a Venture, as a result of the escapade, so perhaps it wasn’t a total waste of time and money.
Today, the only hunting of basking sharks that takes place off Britain is scientists armed with darting poles and satellite tagging devices. They spend a few weeks every summer tracking down sharks in the hotspots identified by Colin Speedie. Last year, they managed to tag 20, this year they are aiming to do as many as 31.
The data they obtain from these tags is illuminating: one swam down to the Canary Islands for the winter, another just to the Bristol Channel. But according to Dr Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter, who runs the project on behalf of Scottish Natural Heritage, the tags have also demonstrated that many basking sharks are summer residents in Scotland. They are probably feeding and mating, he says, but nobody knows for sure.
“It makes sense,” he adds. “An animal that lives in the vast expanse of the ocean needs optimal density [of numbers] for mating to occur, and that’s likely to happen when they are aggregating to feed.”
Basking sharks are Britain’s most visible members of the elasmobranch class, which also includes skates and rays, and great whites as
the most controversial, but there are plenty of others. Every weekend, sea anglers all around the country try to hook, tag and release sharks ranging from blue sharks off Wales to tope, smooth hounds and common skates in Scotland. The porbeagle is said to be not unlike a great white, but smaller, while the spurdog and lesser spotted dogfish are still caught to be eaten.
I once spent a day with conservationists from WWF tagging blue sharks about nine miles off Milford Haven. Using rods and lines that looked like something out of The Old Man and the Sea, the team landed six beasts of varying lengths but all shaped like electric-blue, Exocet missiles.
Towards the end of the day, I was given a turn, and having snagged one, panted, sweated and grunted for more than 20 minutes as the animal fought to get away. When I eventually got the shark on deck, it was not even a metre long, and I think my fellow mariners wondered what all the fuss had been about. One thing was certain: we weren’t going to need a bigger boat.
Cage diving with blue sharks off the coast of Cornwall. Trips depart from Newquay, cost £95 per person, with equipment provided.
Snorkel with basking sharks in the Inner Hebrides. Prices vary.
More information about watching basking sharks off the Isle of Man. Bob Taylor runs trips out of Port St Mary aboard the Gemini.