it happened to me
They have a deserved reputation as gentle giants but, as chairman of the Shark Trust Richard Peirce discovered off Cornwall, even basking sharks have their breaking point…
I don’t know how many hours I have spent in the water with basking sharks in the past 15 years, but I can say with some confidence that it’s more than a hundred. I have rarely felt threatened,
but a dive this June was one of those rare occasions. I was about four miles off Newquay and saw at least 30 sharks on the surface, feeding in small groups. The sharks were breaching regularly, and females made up the majority of the group.
Earlier in the day, snorkellers and free-divers had reported female basking sharks giving birth to pups. I saw no evidence of this but did note lampreys, which may have been mistaken for pups, attached to the females. There were six of us swimming and free-diving with the sharks when they came near our boat. The humans were well behaved – there was no chasing of, or swimming at, the sharks – and the smallest shark I saw was about 4m long, so there were no pups as far as I was aware.
At the end of our first swim, three sharks appeared below me at the edge of my visibility at a depth of 6–8m. They circled me, then slowly tightened their circle and rose in the water, getting closer all the time. There was clearly a purpose to this manoeuvre. Their swimming became faster and more purposeful and I began to feel threatened by the sharks.
Chris and Annabelle Lowe of Atlantic Divers watched the incident from the boat, and felt the behaviour of the basking sharks was purposeful and potentially dangerous. Quite correctly, Chris called everyone out of the water. But most of us went back in soon afterwards, and there was no repetition of the sharks’ earlier behaviour. They swam by with mouths open, filter-feeding as they went.
If I’ve spent a hundred hours in the water with basking sharks, my friend Ken Watterson on the Isle of Man has probably clocked up a thousand. I believe he is Britain’s most experienced in-water basking shark observer, so I called him for his opinion. Ken confirmed that, on several occasions, he has also had the feeling that the sharks wanted him out of their space. He related being both charged and circled.
Colin Speedie is an ex-chairman of the Shark Trust, a colleague of many years who, like Ken, has clocked hundreds of hours on the water watching baskers. Colin was not in the least surprised by my story and described how basking sharks sometimes ‘joust’ or appear to charge each other.
Compared to these animals, which weigh up to seven tonnes and reach lengths of 10m, humans are puny. I once got a whack on the calf from a basker’s tail, which gave me a spectacular bruise. That was an accident, but had I been on the receiving end of a deliberate tail swipe, a broken leg could easily have resulted.
It may well be many more years before I have a similar experience; it may never happen again. While I don’t think this incident is a reason not to swim with basking sharks, I do think it’s every
reason for them to be given respect, and for divers and swimmers to be as careful as possible. If any form of non-feeding, purposeful behaviour is observed, with the sharks looking as if they might make deliberate contact, get out of the water.
I hope and expect that shark eco-tourism in Britain – including blue shark cage-diving and basking shark snorkelling – will continue to gain momentum. Because both activities take place on the surface, they are open not just to divers but to everyone – which means that those operating these trips need to be aware of the potential dangers, and must have the experience to spot them and take action to head off accidents. I hate
our over-governed health-and-safety culture as much as most people, but an accident would be a sure way to get these guys poking their noses in. So, the potential for the harmless basking shark to be occasionally harmful must be borne in mind by us all.
Why did the basking sharks behave like this? I simply don’t know: maybe there were pups around that I didn’t see; maybe weird, ungainly human forms were seen as competitors for the food source; maybe they were just telling us to ‘buzz off’; or maybe we had made mistakes we weren’t aware of. The lesson is: enjoy them, but be careful. We are the guests in their environment.