You never forget the first time you see a basking shark. I was 21 years old and new to the underwater world of Ireland’s coast. The same morning, in a very disinterested way, a great crested grebe passed by our boat, which was still sitting in the marina. I was thoroughly impressed with my wildlife encounter so soon in the day and thought, ‘anything else now is a bonus’. The previous summer I had spent a long weekend on Cape Clear, Co. Cork, watching for whales and dolphins with zero success. I expected our expedition to find basking sharks off the Donegal coast to go much the same way. Yet the odds were in our favour, the wind was still, the sea was calm, and most importantly, we had basking shark chum at our back – the sun was out.
I was told to keep an eye out for black fins on the water, ‘they are huge, you can’t miss them’. For the next few hours, I worried myself sick that every slight break, small chop on the water or any shadow or dark reflection was an opportunity missed. Although, I needn’t have worried, nor should have had my eyes glued to the binoculars searching the far horizon and distant bay.
A gigantic shark, seemingly out of nowhere, appeared right alongside our boat. When I first saw the basking shark, it was as close to my nose as my eyes are to my toes. At first, I struggled to make it out, such is the mottled and camouflaged colouring on a basking shark’s skin. However, its movement through the water, although effortless, gave it away. My eyes focused, and I saw the largest fish I’d ever seen or thought possible to exist. The dorsal fin sailed past, turns out it’s true, they are huge and you can’t miss them. It felt like an age before the shark fully passed our boat such was its lengthy proportions, but one standout memory was not only how long this shark was, but how incredibly wide it was too. The books, stories and videos hadn’t quite prepared me for the monumental size of this fish in the flesh.
This week is Shark Week, an idea originating in America, but has radiated out across the world where shark scientists and conservationists aim to raise awareness of the importance of sharks in our seas. It is also a valuable opportunity for conservation groups to highlight the numerous ways in which human activity threatens shark populations and what can be done about it. For me personally, it has been an excuse to take a trip down memory lane, and reflect on the way in which my first encounter with a basking shark impacted me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day changed the course of my whole life and career forever.
The day left such an impression on my mind that I have been volunteering my time and working with the Irish Basking Shark Group (IBSG) ever since. The group’s aims are to conserve basking sharks through education, advocacy and research. At the moment they are leading a campaign to gain legal protection for basking sharks in Irish waters. Encouragingly, in Fair Seas’ recent ‘Revitalising Our Seas’ report, basking sharks were identified as an important qualifying feature in many of the ‘Areas of Interest’ for potential marine protected area designation. Just as I was privileged to see basking sharks that day in Donegal, and many times since, Ireland is privileged to host these animals in our waters year after year. It is our responsibility to use every tool we have, be that legal means or protected areas, while they are along our coasts and in our care.
A good friend of mine saw their first basking shark only last year, despite having devoted their life’s work and research to Cetorhinus maximus – the scientific Latin name for basking sharks. The sharks had proved elusive until another sunny day brought them to the sea-surface, this time off the coast of Co. Clare. My friend later admitted to having a wee cry afterwards. Such is the power of nature and experiencing wildlife up close, it can make us feel all at once insignificant, full of awe, happy and alive. I wish everyone their own life-transforming encounter with nature this Shark Week. Be it a great crested grebe, a basking shark, or the humblest of crabs on the seashore – your life will be better off for it
Blog by Dr. Donal Griffin, Fair Seas Marine Policy Officer and co-coordinator of the Irish Basking Shark Group
We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.
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