it happened to me

IHTM Basking Sharks main

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.


Help others learn from your experiences. Tell us your diving story – email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Have your say...

  • No comments found
Add comment

Enjoy this article? Share with your buddies...

From the Web

Dive SignUp 2014 final

Destinations Spotlight

Need inspiration for your next dive trip? Try one of our featured destinations from DIVE's travel partners.

Belize 300x100SmallPhilippines 300x100 4Malta 300x100Malaysia 300x100

DIVE Partners

WAKATOBI DIVE-online-300x100-B300x100 new buttonAPDIVING-gif-300-100STW right FINALSecretParadisewatersportswarehouse 300 100Aiyanar Button2 webScubaSpa2 2UltimateDiving 300x100


  1. Articles
These regions require either a free or paid enlistment. Once enrolled, a man can advantage of the ma...
Guest - Kariuki
Doesn't anyone remember Noah's flood?
Altering services, particularly those adapted towards understudies and ESL speakers, are seeing expa...
A little-known Japanese company has donated 10 000 high-tech face masks to several Ebola-hit African...
The world has lost a talented man who was also an advocate for animal abuse. Sam Simon will be misse...

Read DIVE magazine

DIVE magazine is available to read on many devices. Simply click one one of the options below

PCMac final
Apple finalAndroid final