swimming with basking sharks

Footage courtesy @elliektaylorphotography

If you want to see Basking Sharks then June to September is when these gentle giants pay our coastlines a visit.

Where to see basking sharks:
The West is best,
Head for the Hebrides (Coll, Skye, Mull),
Isle of Man,
Malin Head and
South-west England (Devon, Cornwall, Scilly).

On my trip to Penzance last year, I didn’t see any, so to up the odds a bit I set off for Scotland. I left home in a balmy 25 degrees, yet arrived to ten degrees, gale force weather warnings and a big storm, not great news for shark hunting. But I made it to Coll where I met the guys from Basking Shark Scotland. It was great to meet people so passionate about these giant fish and learn a bit more about the sharks before hopefully, getting in the water with them.

Some quick basking shark facts:
Basking sharks can grow up to 10m long – the ones seen around Coll range from 5-8meters, that’s 25ft!
They are the second largest fish on Earth after the Whale shark.
Their mouths are over a meter wide.
They don’t have big teeth (I wouldn’t be so eager to hop in with them if they did. They have tiny teeth, filtering seawater to feed using gill rakers, fueling their huge bodies on a diet of plankton soup).
They eat Zooplankton. These are small organisms, each about the size of a pinhead that look like pink floating dots close-up, like shrimp in miniature. They’re weak swimmers and drift in their millions in ‘blooms’ or nutrient-rich streams, where warm and cold waters meet. Luckily Coll is a real hotspot. These blooms were something we’d be looking for – resembling dark water slicks on a calm sea – hmmm choppy waves were everywhere. The storms messing up the plankton ribbons.
Basking sharks have two penises!!! I know, weird… I know this because we did see sharks on our trip and I got up-close and personal. At first I thought I’d seen two lampreys (fish that attach to sharks and feed off them like vampires), only to be told by our guide that they were its penises (or rather two grooved organs called claspers). If the male shark happens to dock along the right side of the receptive female, he uses his left clasper and visa versa – makes sense.
Basking sharks can be seen feeding together. Shane, our trusty skipper and shark expert, told us that when the plankton streams are narrow and deep he’s seen sharks stacked five high happily cruising their soup trail. Sharks can follow other sharks too, often being mistaken for even bigger creatures.

Basking sharks are huge and yet there’s still a surprising amount we don’t know about them. A small-scale tagging project showed individuals travelling to Newfoundland and others heading for the Med, we don’t know much about where they breed and it is suspected that in the winter they head for deep water plankton but some expects think they may even go dormant, hardly feeding.

basking shark swim blur

Looking for sharks
Over three days we searched the seas around Coll for a tell-tale jaws-like fin rising from the waters. I was surprised how big their dorsal fins are and how high in the water they sit, making them quite easy to spot (especially when the waves calm down).

atseaOnce you find one, the most important thing to remember when swimming with the basking shark is not to chase them or interrupt their natural behaviour. Shane positioned the boat well ahead of a shark in the hope that it would swim towards us on its feeding path. We were told that they can sense us using water pressure so to stay calm and not splash about. Getting too close would cause them to pause from feeding or divert from their feeding paths.

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As we entered the water (only four can swim at any one time), the shark we’d seen looked a long way off. We swam closer and waited. I was quite nervous… then suddenly from the murk appeared a white mouth which grew larger and clearer as the shark came closer.

We saw it feed then close its mouth and filter its haul before opening wide for more. Actually it wasn’t that scary. They haven’t got the heavy bulk I expected and they seem to care about nothing but eating plankton.

They didn’t seem to know we were there, a large male just kept on coming, right on a collision course with me. But maybe they’re like big four-by-four drivers not caring about a tiny vehicle. I kept expecting it to move until eventually I tried to get out of its way. He simply glided a little lower, passing right beneath me. Amazing! I could see its mottled skin and was stunned when his tail flicked past and he disappeared back into the haze of food. I was so shocked I didn’t even remember to film him – so thank you to Ellie Taylor from our group for the footage of a basking shark above.
I had a freezing cold, wet day, spent feeling a bit sea sick – but it was worth every soggy minute, for an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.

seal area

The Isle of Coll (I-love-coll)
The sun showed its face briefly during my stay, so I took the opportunity to take a look around the island. Coll is thirteen miles long, rugged and wild with the winds keeping trees at bay. But it’s also stunning, peaceful and has crystal clear, turquoise seas – especially around the seal lagoon at the north of the island.

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Come prepared though as there is only one hotel/restaurant in Arinagour and two tiny shops for provisions, which aren’t open every day.

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If you’re lucky you could see Otters near the jetty, or a Sea Eagle overhead. Head out on the water and as well as sharks there are Dolphins, Sunfish or even a passing Orca! The news that a killer whale had been seen two days previously made me slightly nervous about hopping into the water dressed like a seal…

imageWe were so lucky on our trip, even with the bad weather we still saw more than half a dozen sharks, Harbour Porpoise and a small Minke Whale. Thanks to the guys from Basking Shark Scotland and the rest of my group for all being so lovely and making it such a brilliant few days. Big smiles all around.

Image courtesy of Rosamund Derby

Image courtesy of Rosamund Derby

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