• William Gray

Basking Shark: A Big Fish Story

Summer marks the return of basking sharks to the waters around Cornwall, Devon, the Isle of Man and the Scottish Hebrides. William Gray recounts the moment he met the world's second largest fish...

It was at least twenty feet long (probably nearer thirty) and it swam straight under my legs – as silent and unswerving as a nuclear sub. I saw its mouth first – a dark, gaping hole in the planktonic fuzz of the Irish Sea. Then came its mottled back and the three-foot tall dorsal fin that we had spied earlier from the deck of our boat. Its tail seemed a long time coming, scything the water with long steady strokes that left me and the jellyfish swirling in its wake. As suddenly as it had appeared, the basking shark vanished again, dissolving into the soupy waters that surround the Isle of Man.

Considering it can weigh as much as an elephant and reach 36 feet in length, little is known about the world’s second largest fish. Basking sharks have no teeth to speak of (which you might argue is all you need to know), but feed on plankton strained from the sea. Every hour, enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool is filtered through their cavernous mouths.

Perhaps most surprising, however, is that each summer these gentle giants congregate off the west coast of the UK.

No-one really knows where they come from or where they go.

Basking sharks have no teeth to speak of (which you might argue is all you need to know), but feed on plankton strained from the sea. Every hour, enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool is filtered through their cavernous mouths.

Our first morning was calm and sunny, perfect for spotting sharks. The tell-tale sign would be the dorsal fin, slicing above the waves. But to my untrained eye every black flag marking a submerged lobster pot made my heart leap. Occasionally, seals surfaced to watch us pass with large, sad eyes – vying for attention. We soon gained an entourage of gulls and fulmars, while puffins and guillemots launched themselves from towering sea cliffs.

The seas around the Isle of Man support abundant marine life. In addition to basking sharks, you can also spot orca, minke and sperm whales, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins and leatherback turtles.

But the ‘big fish’ were proving elusive on our first outing. By midday, we had seen several seals and countless lobster pot flags – but no basking sharks. Although the Isle of Man is still one of the best places in the world to see them, there's been a worrying decline in their numbers. Although basking sharks enjoy protected status around the UK, their ocean-roaming lifestyle makes them vulnerable. Once, it wasn’t uncommon to find shoals of 200 or more sharks. But hunting has taken its toll. Although the market for shark oil disappeared several years ago, their fins are still considered a delicacy in the Far East.

We entered a broad, sheltered bay and through the glassy surface several enormous lion’s mane jellyfish were clearly visible. We were drifting alongside the pulsing, orange orbs when the shark was sighted.

Not one fin, but two, protruded above the waves – the dark, triangular dorsal fin followed by the slender tip of the shark’s tail. It was moving fast towards us, coursing through choppy water beyond the bay. As the shark swam nearer, we could appreciate its full scale and grace.

Around twenty feet in length, the shark was amazingly supple, twisting through 180 degrees as it ‘mowed’ strips of plankton beneath the surface. I could clearly see the wide gape of its mouth, easily big enough to accommodate, say, the head and shoulders of a snorkeller.

“Don’t worry,” our skipper murmured. “They know you’re there.”

By the time I had coerced my body into a dry suit, the shark had moved some distance away. Instead of following it, we decided to use a small rubber dinghy with outboard engine. The trick was to position yourself in the shark's path and let it come to you. Perched on the edge of the dinghy, inches above the sea, we watched the dorsal fin tack back and forth. Then, quite abruptly, the shark turned and made directly for us.

“Here he comes. In you go.”

One glimpse underwater and I was totally disorientated. The sea was like jellyfish minestrone, a perpetual blizzard of pink dots and translucent blobs that restricted visibility to under ten feet. Lifting my face above the surface, I noticed that the dinghy had already drifted some way off.

Treading water, I began to slowly spin around. At first, there was no sign of the shark. Then a large swell lifted me above the mêlée of waves and for a brief, nerve-popping moment I saw the dorsal fin. It was close and coming straight towards me.

Instinctively, I began to back-pedal with my fins, but the current held me firmly in the path of the advancing shark. Fifty feet, forty feet… the gap closed inexorably until I felt certain the shark would sense me and veer off to one side. Instead, it maintained its course and went into a shallow dive, the dorsal fin sliding from view; my stomach sinking with it. Tentatively, I dipped my masked face beneath the surface and peered into the planktonic murk.

I could only have seen the shark for a few seconds as its pointed snout and broad dappled back materialised out of the gloom below me. But the image, no matter how fleeting, was instantly seared on my mind.

We returned to Peel on an ebbing tide with late afternoon sunlight glancing off the brightly-coloured Victorian buildings that line the waterfront. A lone figure trod the beach, trailed by a dog that would periodically rush off to put flight to the gulls resting by the water’s edge. A timeless charm seemed to pervade the town. There was everything you’d expect in a traditional seaside resort, from the cry of gulls to the waft of fish and chips. I wondered if anyone would believe my big fish story – that just a couple of hours earlier I had come face to face with a giant shark. It was at least twenty feet long – probably nearer thirty. And, I’m not kidding you, it swam straight under my legs.

Find out more about basking sharks and how you can help support their ongoing research and conservation by visiting the website of the Shark Trust

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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.