The Basking Shark: Gentle Giant of the British Coastline

When you think of British wildlife your mind most probably wanders to the urban foxes of our cities, or perhaps the elusive badger – seldom seen. Maybe, you think of crisp, white, snowy landscapes, broken by the vibrant flash of the redbreast of a robin. But, it’s one of our largest species that draws my attention for this piece – drifting silently along our coastline, sometimes completely unnoticed. This is doubly amazing considering its gargantuan size: the Basking Shark.

SHARKS IN UK WATERS

You may be surprised to hear that UK waters are actually inundated with shark species, with over 40 out of 400 known sharks frequenting the coastline year on year, according to the Marine Conservation Society. Although the British human population may be a little tentative to dip their toes in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, North or Irish Seas, sharks have no such worry. Short-fin makos, blues, threshers, and even the legendary Greenland shark all glide effortlessly in the deep blue surrounding our little island. But, it’s the basking shark that really tops the list.

Basking sharks are the second-largest shark in the world, coming in just behind the whale shark at around 8 metres long usually, but at their largest hitting 11 metres in length. Before flashbacks of a childhood being terrified of Jaws begin to permutate through your mind, these sharks are gentle giants, preferring to filter feed on plankton and small crustaceans rather than some meatier prey. They are one of three shark species to do so and are certainly the only ones to have the trademark enormous, gaping mouth that makes them unmistakable. Spanning a metre wide, the basking shark’s mouth captures all manner of microscopic organisms and converts them into energy, giving them the slow, smooth movements through the water and allows you to see pretty much all the way down their digestive system. It has a relatively passive lifestyle, dictated to by the smallest weight-to-weight ratio of any shark brain. It’s a docile, chilled-out shark that embodies the beach lifestyle enjoyed by those based in the temperate seas of our blue planet.

So, where are they?

If you’re wondering where you can see basking sharks in the UK the answer is more widespread than you may think. Pretty much anywhere along the coast is the answer, but there are some hot-spots where you can increase your chances. As usual, the Isles of Mull and Skye, in Scotland, play host to these leviathans constantly but I’d think twice before getting in the icy waters – perhaps an endeavour for the real enthusiasts. The Isle of Man is another hub, as is the South-West of England, especially Cornwall and Devon

THREATS

There are a number of threats towards basking sharks, seeing them listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and unfortunately it’s human activity that leads to this. Boat collisions account for a large proportion of fatalities, but a more intense impact on the sharks is being provided by fishing practices. Ensuring that fishing remains sustainable and lowers its impact on the environment is now an age-old conversation. Fishing is not a bad industry but, as is usual, when practised unethically it has profoundly negative outcomes for marine life. I have written extensively on the UK’s approach to marine policy and this is being tackled, head-on at the highest level which is great to see. The Wildlife Trust is especially active, spearheading the ‘Living Seas’ initiative, which looks to weave together environmental, political and industrial viewpoints so that humans and marine ecosystems can co-habit harmoniously.

Respecting distance…

On the topic of experiencing them up close, The Shark Trust outlines some ethical guidelines of how to approach basking sharks. Generally, as a rule, they are prone to anxiety and harassment from water-users. Like most sharks, they aren’t particularly keen on being bothered. These animals aren’t as naturally inquisitive as say a reef or blue shark and tend to prefer to keep to themselves. Should you still feel inclined to be in and on the water in the presence of basking sharks, it’s a good benchmark to try and keep boats at least 100 metres away, similar to whale watching, with the engine on. If you get any closer, killing the engine is the done thing. This may seem overzealous, but it’s key to remember that although there may only be one shark on the surface, it is likely that there are many more below.  Safeguarding their presence in the water is paramount, so remaining mindful of basking shark behaviours is essential. If you are unlucky enough to be around basking sharks that are courting or mating, your presence will double anxiety. Although they aren’t known to be aggressive, they are enormously powerful. A quick, misguided swish of their tail could spell real trouble for a human being, so keeping distance is really important. Those in the water should always be around 4 metres away, mainly to reduce stress and avoid the above scenario. Ideally, you should stay near the surface and not appear to be swimming directly towards the shark, as it will see this as a threat (inducing dangerous thrashing behaviour). You must never, ever attempt to touch the sharks. They are wild animals and should be respected so. However, enjoying them and wanting to experience them isn’t a crime (although disturbing them is, as they are a legally protected species in the UK). In fact, encouraging knowledge exchange and raising awareness of them is really important.

CONSERVATION

There are heaps of organisations doing great work to preserve these amazing creatures. I’ve already mentioned the Shark Trust and the Wildlife Trust, but you’ve also got Basking Shark Scotland and Exeter University doing their bit too. All of them are in need of support in one way or another. Donations act as the most direct route but if you live in an area that basking sharks frequent, reporting sighting and photographing fins is equally as impactful. Report these sightings to all the respective organistations mentioned and it gives them a much broader amount of data to draw upon. This, in turn, facilitates better decision-making and more pinpointed actions which then benefits the sharks even more. If you want to spend your time, rather than your money, to help the cause, reach out to those working in this area. I have found them to always be exceptionally open to help and very responsive. Instagram, Twitter (and all the other social media channels) act as a great means to get in touch directly and serve as a positive example of how social media has helped mobilise many environmental causes. Basking Shark Scotland even have 4- and 8-day expeditions that you can book yourself onto, to help collect data on basking sharks, if you want to guarantee that your time will directly help our gentle giants. The first of these expeditions kick off on the 1st September and could be an excellent way to kick-start your conservation impact (providing COVID restrictions have eased by then).

Do your bit…

All in all, it is safe to say that basking sharks are an iconic, if not a little elusive, species of Great Britain and serve to remind us of the amazing biodiversity that this little island really has in abundance. Make a change today and help where you can. Whether it’s a donation, an expedition or even just the beginnings of a conversation, let’s all make a commitment to preserving the wonderful nature we possess and help it live in harmony with people, continuing to bring wonder for generations to come.

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