Basking Sharks in Cornwall

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Basking sharks are the world’s second largest fish with the Whale shark taking top spot. The name ‘Basking’ comes from its habit of cruising the warmer waters near the surface as if basking in the sun. In fact they are feeding on the plankton that rises near the surface during warmer weather.  The sharks are often seen near the shore with their tell tale dorsal and tail fins cutting the silky waters surface. They can grow up to lengths of around 9 metres and weigh 5 tons or more but even so they are not at all dangerous.  Having said that, of course if you put your hand in its mouth or try to ride its tail then it will panic and by its shear size alone will no doubt do you harm in its attempt to escape.

I recently spent a day out along the south Cornish coast looking for the sharks with Charles Hood, a marine photographer who runs shark watching trips out of Penzance.  With the knowledge that several were spotted the day before, we were confident that we would soon find them and be able to get into the water and snorkel with them. Alas, as the day went on and neared its end they were still nowhere to be found. Charles called other boats in the area and they all said what a great day it was yesterday for the sharks but none spotted today. That’s wildlife for you!

I have had some great encounters with Basking Sharks in Sennen Cove, Cornwall, when I have been out on my surf board. Letting the sharks come to me rather that chase them I have had many along side me with their great gaping mouths sieving out the plankton into their gill rakers.

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I recalled to Charles a very nasty encounter I had early on in my career as a wildlife cameraman when a 6 metre shark was harpooned right in front of my eyes while I was in the water filming it. It may have been my fancy but I could hear the death groans from the shark as it battled hopelessly against the harpoon and its tether to the ship that had fired it.

After an age of struggle and pain the dying shark was hauled up to the boat where its tail was cut off. It was then tied to a buoy and left in the water to die slowly before being hauled aboard and taken back to port.

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The reason for it being so brutally killed was for its liver oil which is 25-30% of its body weight. The oil is very pure and needs little refining and worth a lot of money. Thankfully now the Basking shark is protected by law.

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Just before going back to harbour we pulled into a small cove where I asked Charles about the sharks and the people he took out to see them.

 

Charles:

All sorts really, from those who have never seen a shark before to shark experts. As well as locals I get people from as far away as Hawaii, Canada and Europe. Although a few are youngsters most are in their 40-50s who have photographed sharks before around the world and want to put the Basking shark on their tick list.

Jeff:

Is Cornwall good for basking sharks?

Charles:

Yes generally from Sennen around to the west of the Lizard is best from mid May through to July and sometimes in August we get a second plankton bloom which will keep the sharks around.

Jeff:

Do they come close to the shore?

Charles:

Yes indeed, they will come right into the rocky shoreline as well as the sandy shallows of the holiday beaches.

Jeff:

How long have you been doing this?

Charles:

A good 20 years, 5 of which commercially. In the mid eighties I would come down to Cornwall just snorkelling with the sharks.

Jeff:

Over those 20 years have you noticed any difference in numbers?

Charles:

It’s hard to tell but generally I think they have increased and it seems to be juvenile 3-4 metre sharks we are seeing more of. Where as 20 years ago, you would be seeing more of the 8-9 metre sharks and I can’t really explain why that is.

Jeff:

Any changes in the last 5 years since you have been doing this commercially?

Charles:

Only the weather really. The onset of plankton has come much later as the water has been colder. So instead of the sharks being concentrated over several weeks they are spread out over a several months.

Jeff:

The other week I noticed a small boat harassing a young shark while trying to get close to it. Is there a correct way to approach them?

Charles:

Officially they are a protected species so you should not endanger or harass them in any way. The best way I find is to stay 100 metres or so away and observe how the sharks are behaving and try to predict where the sharks will be in 2 or 3 minutes time. Then that is the place to enter the water if you want to snorkel with them. In this way you are not disturbing the shark’s normal pattern and if you stay still they will swim pass you, often coming back the same way and swimming around in a set pattern. The boat then can remain 50-100 metres away.

Jeff:

How protected are the sharks in the UK?

Charles:

Endangering or harassing the sharks can make you liable to prosecution where the penalties can be quite high, somewhere in the region of £4,000 – £5,000 or 6 months in prison.

Jeff:

How should you act when in the water with the sharks?

Charles:

Once you predict were the shark is going, stay still in the water and let it pass you. If you fin after it then it will probably swim away. They often swim in large circles while feeding and so will come back to you sooner or later.

Jeff:

Are the bigger sharks more approachable?

Charles:

Yes, the larger ones are far less bothered by you being in the water where as the smaller ones around 3 metres or less are more skittish and will swim away.

Jeff:

Is there a future for basking sharks?

Charles:

Yes I think so. We are seeing more each year and the plankton at the moment is looking good. If more countries joined the UK in the protection of these sharks then they could return to a very sustainable population.

 

IMG_3275 600Then, just as we were about to head home, Charles had a call from another boat skipper to say there was a shark just off the rocks near the Minack Theatre. It only took 10 minutes to get there and the shark was still busily feeding in the tide line. The sun was now low and so the light was getting poor underwater but I still had to get in with the shark if possible. With great patience Charles manoeuvred us into a position where he thought the shark would be coming to. I slipped into the water, camera ready. Unfortunately the visibility was not too good but never the less the shark was heading in my direction.  With my face half in, half out of the water I could see the large fin heading straight for me but underwater, not a thing. Then it appeared, only 3 metres away and swimming steadily towards me. No matter how many times I see sharks, it is always a thrill, the excitement of the first encounter, not being too sure if it will come close enough for me take some video, not sure I will spook it and it will turn away. It came closer and I started to film as it glided past me. My excitement rose as I looked into its eye and realised that it was looking directly back at me. Truly a magical moment.

You can find details of trips with Charles at http://charleshood.com/snorkel-with-sharks

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman

Jeff Goodman is the Conservation editor and also the Underwater Videography Editor for Scubaverse.com. Jeff is an award winning TV wildlife and underwater cameraman and film maker. With over 10,000 dives to his credit he has dived in many different environments around the world.

One Reply to “Basking Sharks in Cornwall”

  1. jonat1 says:

    Thank you for this very good article. I have to say though, if you want
    to see basking sharks, you will nearly always see them up around Tiree
    and around the Western Isles of Scotland. I’ve been working in that area
    as a commercial diver for over 20 years now and we see them regularly,
    especially in the summer months. I assume you will know about Gavin
    Maxwell and his ill-fated attempts to establish a shark fishing factory
    on our island of Soay, just after the end of the second world war. His
    tale is worth reading, if only to remind us of how lucky we are to live
    in a world where these awesome and beautiful creatures are protected by
    law. You can read about it in his book called ” Harpoon at a Venture,
    which is available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Harpoon-at-Venture-Gavin-Maxwell/dp/1899863281

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