|IT WAS LATE LAST JULY WHEN I RETURNED HOME FROM WORKING OFFSHORE, convinced that I had yet again missed out on the basking-shark season. While away, I had suffered the torment of numerous reports of the beasts all around the Lizard and Lands End, knowing that I had no chance of getting home to photograph them. |
However, the seas were calm and the weather fine, so Bill and I decided to head down to the Runnel Stone for a spectacular reef dive instead. I had to endure more tales of all those sharks in May and June on the way out.
Just off Tater Du lighthouse, we noticed a RIB some way offshore, seemingly at anchor but nowhere near a diving site. We decided to investigate.
As we got closer, we realised that the RIB was not at anchor but drifting with the tide. What was more exciting were the distinctive triangular fins which were cutting the water around the boat. It seemed incredible, but here was a group of basking sharks in late July!
I was madly scrambling into my drysuit while Bill got the details from the divers on the RIB, who had been drifting with this group for an hour or so.
Although the visibility throughout the area was good, there seemed to be an isolated mass of plankton offshore and now moving with the tide towards the Runnel Stone. The sharks were trying to consume it as fast as possible.
Bill thought he had counted up to 10 individuals. He stayed on the boat as I hit the water with my camera for my first attempt to get close. Three or four fruitless forays followed, as I narrowly missed my close encounter, but eventually we realised that there was a pattern to the sharks movements.
They were feeding along the edge of the plankton cloud, sometimes cutting into it to make a turn.
ONCE I HAD GRASPED THIS, I WAS ABLE TO POSITION MYSELF downtide of the plankton and sharks and then swim with them and the tide. Suddenly, I didnt know which way to turn. There were perhaps eight or nine 6m sharks moving swiftly around me, with those familiar jaws agape! They were passing incredibly close to me (too close to photograph much of the time) and each other, but without colliding or arguing about who was gulping whose plankton.
I was swimming hard to stay with them and trying to ignore my breathlessness and aching limbs - snorkelling hard in a drysuit is very hard work and I made a mental note to bring a wetsuit next time!
All too soon the camera was out of film, and I began to get the distinct impression that I was moving faster and the swell increasing. Lifting my head, I could see that I was well past the Runnel Stone buoy and had hit the faster-moving ebb tide towards the Longships Reef.
Fortunately, Bill was right with me and I was soon back on the boat, relating those big fish stories while we watched the sharks heading towards the open sea.
We tried to convince ourselves that they might come back with the plankton when the tide turned, but this was not to be, although there were reports of sightings on the north coast around the Brissons for the next few days.
However this experience had been a great success and had taught us to extend the season and our expectations of a chance encounter.
BIG ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS ARE BECOMING INCREASINGLY POPULAR with divers who want a new experience, or who perhaps seek the perfect marine image. Most of these excursions are to locations as far afield as Australia, Hawaii, the Caribbean, South Africa, Thailand or even the chilly waters of Norway.
The other feature they have in common is the requirement for a degree of forward planning and a fat wallet - these exotic trips dont come cheap. But as my story proves, there are opportunities for big animal encounters in our own home waters, and you can travel at the drop of a hood.
Anyone who has swum with basking sharks will tell you that it is an awesome experience. This fish is second in size only to the whale shark and displays the same gentle characteristics and feeding habits as its larger cousin.
Basking sharks can reach 10m in length and weigh in at anything from 2 to 7 tonnes. They are easily found for several months of the year on our own doorsteps, and a little preparation and planning will put you face to face with those gaping jaws.
The basking shark is a migratory fish and follows the plankton blooms. The early spring sunshine in the south-western approaches is the catalyst for the first zooplankton bloom, and the signal to start watching for the sharks around the Lizard and Lands End.
These first sightings are broadcast on the Internet by the Porthkerris Dive Centre on the tip of the Lizard, which provides an ideal base for tracking down basking sharks. The season normally lasts from early May through to the middle of August, though sharks are seen until well into September if there is a second bloom at the end of the summer. The past three years have seen unusually high numbers around the Cornish peninsula, with more than 500 reported in 1998!
IF CORNWALL SEEMS TOO FAR TO GO ON THE SPUR OF THE MOMENT, the other reliable alternative for getting close to basking sharks is the Isle of Man. Large numbers of sharks are not uncommon here, particularly on the west coast, close to the port town of Peel.
Here the annual visitation of the sharks is well-known and is even used as a tourist attraction, with several boats available to go shark-watching from the surface during the season. It is also here that the Basking Shark Society was established and its website is a good place to start for an update on the arrival of the first sharks of the season.
Calm conditions are best for spotting and approaching basking sharks, so watch the inshore weather forecasts carefully for high pressure approaching from the Atlantic.
You can come equipped with your own boat to track down the beasts, but a surer way is to use local boats, because the skippers have the best knowledge of the tides which drive the plankton along the coast.
The first indication of sharks feeding at the surface is often groups of seabirds hovering close to the water in the hope of an easy meal. The next sighting will be the classic image of the dorsal fin breaking the surface, and often the tail of the shark as well.
Now is the time to be patient - watch the movement of the sharks for a while. They will often feed on the edge of a ball of plankton and you might observe a regular circuit or diagonal sweeps. This helps you predict the sharks movements and your boat can place you in the water ahead of your quarry on an intercepting course.
Watch from the surface to correct your position as the shark approaches, then prepare yourself for a head-to-head encounter.
A wetsuit and snorkel are the best tools, as you will often need to put on a turn of speed to keep up, and scuba and drysuits impose too much drag. Photographers should use a wide-angle lens in the 20mm-to-fisheye range, whether you use a Nikonos or a housed system. Forget your flash and load with 100ASA or 200ASA film - there will be plenty of light, as the sharks are right on the surface.
Set your shutter speed to 125th and meter the water below the surface and then perhaps open half a stop on the aperture - the sharks are quite dark. Fix your focus at a range that will fill the lens with shark, then remember to bracket your exposures in all the excitement!
Your boat might need to pick you up and drop you again after each pass, or you might be lucky enough to position yourself at the centre of their circuit and merely wait for each pass.
THE SHARKS ARE VERY MUCH AWARE OF YOUR PRESENCE and will avoid you easily, but still pass within touching distance. Until the plankton soup is consumed or thins out they will ignore most intrusions. Sometimes conditions bring the plankton close to shore, and the past few summers have seen sharks feeding within a few metres of water a stones throw from beaches on the Lizard coastline.
For many years there was a commercial fishery for basking sharks, as their liver oil in particular is highly prized. However, declining numbers worldwide have persuaded several countries to take action and in April 1998 the UK government announced the full protection of the basking shark in British waters (out to the 12 mile limit).
The Basking Shark Society seeks to extend our knowledge of this species and promote its protection worldwide.
So if big animals are your bag, have a go at meeting these gentle giants this summer.
And if this doesnt prove exciting enough for you, stick around for the first shark cage dives with blue sharks with the Porthkerris Dive Centre between July and September!
CONTACTSBASKING SHARK SOCIETY 01624 801207,
www.isle-of-man.com/interests/shark/society.htmlBASKING SHARK WATCH 01989 566017,
www.mcsuk.mcmail.comDIVE ACTION, 01326280719,
www.dive-cornwall.demon.co.ukLYONESSE SCUBA CENTRE, 01736 787773,
www.lyonesse.co.ukMOUNTS BAY DIVING, 01736 752135PORTHKERRIS DIVING CENTRE 01326 280620,
www.porthkerrisdiver.demon.co.ukUNDERSEA ADVENTURES, 01736 333040AQUATECH DIVING SERVICES, IoM, 01624 833037
Southern Diving Lodge, IoM, 01624 832943 MANX SEA CHARTERS SERVICES, IoM, 07624 472109
|A feeding basking shark, |
|the details of its enormous gills becoming ever more apparent as it gets nearer. |
|Divers await a sighting on the beach at Porthkerris |
|calm conditions and high cliffs make spotting basking sharks easy. |
|Porthkerris Cove is well equipped for launching a RIB, |
|the best tool with which to approach |
CAGE DIVING WITH BLUES
For many years there has been a successful small-scale blue shark fishery off the Lizard Peninsula. During the summer months, fishermen setting deepwater pots will put a baited shark hook on the riser line between the pots and the surface buoy at both ends of the string. This is set at 6-9m depth, which is the feeding zone for blue sharks. Almost without fail they will catch a blue on each hook, and this will then end up in France or Spain, where it is considered a delicacy.
Mike Anselmi of Porthkerris Divers has been watching this for the past couple of seasons and feels that it will be very simple to chum the water and attract blues for divers, which has been done for many years on both the east and west coasts of the USA. Summer 2001 will see the first trials with a cage to see if this is something that could become a regular attraction.