01 August 2012

Basking Shark Hotspot - Cornwall

Image © Cat Gordon.
Cat Gordon, Conservation Officer at the Shark Trust, goes Basking Shark watching off the coast of Cornwall. 

Basking Shark © Cat Gordon.
"On Saturday 21st July 2012, I finally managed to get out to sea with Rory Goodall of Elemental Tours, in the hope of spotting some sharks. I say finally, as it’s been something we’ve been trying to organise for longer than I can remember, but thanks to the awful British weather blowing up every time it was planned or busy work schedules to blame, it hasn’t quite happened. Until now. With summer finally deciding to arrive, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect – sunshine, calm seas, blue skies and not a cloud in sight or a hint of wind and as a bonus, there had been sightings of sharks in the area as recently as that morning. 

Leaving from Penzance on board his RIB, Ocean Ranger, Rory puts on a great show and kept everyone informed about the history to the surrounding areas, from Penzance, Mousehole and Land’s End to the infamous Minack Theatre. Towards Mousehole, we encountered our first ocean dweller – a juvenile Ocean Sunfish less than a metre in length. Fairly wary of the passing boat, he didn’t stick around long and so we were soon on our way again. We soon saw several fins breaking the water, not of sharks, but porpoises. Moving from the Channel to the Atlantic Ocean, we saw a number of Grey Seals playing in the water by Longships Lighthouse off Land’s End, but still no sharks. Every seal, porpoise, bird, buoy or flag appeared to be a fin from a distance, until finally, the tell-tale fins of a Basking Shark really did emerge. A relatively ‘small’ 5m basker, cruising along feeding, but moving quicker than I could keep up with in my fins, so I settled for watching from the boat. It was an amazing sight and everyone was certainly buzzing from the experience. In Sennen Cove we saw two sharks, one on either side of the bay. These sharks seemed much more relaxed and so I jumped in the water again ahead of the shark and watched as she steadily cruised past me, completely un-phased by my presence. Keeping at a distance I swam next to her until it was clear she could out-swim me even at cruising speed, and I paused before she turned around and swam back past me (Basking Sharks have been observed feeding in a zig-zag motion across plankton blooms). In total, we were lucky enough to see eight baskers. Most were around the 5/6m mark, but two spotted together were much larger at easily 8m, unfortunately this pair didn’t stick around for long. Having spent so long working on the Basking Shark Photo-ID project cataloguing and analysing thousands of fin images, it’s great to get out in the water and see them up close. And yes, I was watching out for any distinguishing features, nicks or notches along the edges and surfaces of the fins! Luckily for the sharks, all dorsal fins were in great condition and no hint of a propeller nick, rope burn or net scar could be seen. All in all, it was a fantastic day and I couldn’t recommend getting out on the water enough. 

If you’re planning on Basking Shark watching this season, then please be sure to choose a responsible tour operator that is WiSe accredited and safely follows the Code of Conduct."