IT REALLY WAS A THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO MOMENT. On Thursday afternoon, I got the green light from Sarah at Porthkerris Dive Centre, and on Friday morning I was heading west into deepest, darkest Cornwall, FAB.
Weve had a number of sightings. Get your arse down here as quick as possible, Sarahs email had read.
I had been waiting more than a year for this - Operation Basking Shark was finally a goer!
For once my wellies and anorak stayed stashed in the car boot. The conditions couldnt have been better for shark-spotting - blue sky, a light breeze and calm water. Was this really the UK
Theres no point going out in waves bigger than 30-40cm, because the sharks tend to drop down and feed deeper below the surface, said Mike Anselmi, Porthkerriss owner/manager. In such conditions its impossible to see the dorsal and tail fins.
Mikes smaller dive-boat, the 8.5m-long Keltic Kitten, had taken a group out the day before and sighted five sharks. They had even got to snorkel with them.
Sarah taunted me with the video footage. One of the sharks had stayed around for a good 20 minutes, quite unbothered by the boat engines or the snorkellers.
If you bring the boat up slowly behind them, you can get really close, said Mike. They dont know youre there, as most of their sensors are facing forward. The skippers are all WISE-accredited, WISE referring to a Wildlife Trust awareness scheme to protect marine life.
Frequent sightings start to happen some time between late April and late June, normally in a four- to six-week window, but times vary from year to year. Mike explained that the sharks congregate off Lands End and then split up. Some go east, as far up the coast as Southampton and the Isle of Wight, while others go north towards Ireland. He thinks they come up from the continental shelf to feed, and drop out of sight again a few months later.
Last year there hadnt been many sharks. It has to be 13°C, said Mike, explaining that the baskers will appear overnight, only to vanish again if the water temperature falls or rises.
They normally turn up on the second plankton cycle: You see the mackerel shoals during the first cycle, then the sharks will appear two weeks later.
Eight-metre sharks used to be common sightings but in recent years they have only been seeing 3-5m sharks. Mike thinks this could be down to the bigger sharks getting caught in fishing nets, or tangled in discarded ropes.
Basking sharks are a fully protected species in UK waters. Their IUCN Red list status is vulnerable.
Mike recalls seeing his first basking shark back in 1993, a specimen more than 10m long. He said he had been able to gauge the length accurately because it was twice the length of his RIB, reminding me of the line from Jaws: Were gonna need a bigger boat.
Mike will arrange a trip only if there is a 70% chance of seeing a basking shark. My staff hate doing these trips, he told me. They dont like to disappoint people if we dont see any sharks.
The boat would normally go out for two hours after lunch, but this depends on the sharks. If we see a shark and it stays around, well stick with it, said Mike. Its down to the skippers discretion whether people are allowed to snorkel with the creatures.

I WANTED TO TRY TO GET CLOSE for a mouth-open picture, the perfect action-shot clincher. But while these sharks might appear slow-moving, it takes only one effortless swish of a tail for them to disappear into the distance (they normally move at around 2 knots when feeding).
The size of my fins or the strength of my leg muscles was irrelevant; there would be no keeping up with them. So Mike devised a cunning attack strategy. If Darren pulled me behind a surf-ski,
a sort of kayak he could manoeuvre me right into the jaws of an oncoming shark, giving me a fighting chance of a picture opportunity.
On arrival at Porthkerris Bay, Sarah told me that they had already seen a big shark right outside the dive centre that morning. Was this a bad omen for me Sods Law always comes into play when someone tempts fate.
We climbed aboard Mikes bigger boat, the 12m Keltic Cat. Its high wheelhouse gave us a much better vantage point for shark-spotting.
Mike had already contacted local fishermen, who had seen three sharks feeding either side of the current line, which is where an upwelling of cooler water brings the plankton closer to the surface - the perfect place to find basking sharks feeding.
We cruised along this current line for a good few miles scanning for fins. We had a few false alarms in the shape of black marker-buoy flags and mating cormorants, but after an hour of eye-numbing searching, I was starting to get concerned. Had I left it too late in the season We had travelled all the way to the Lizard, the UKs most southerly point, and not a whiff of a basking shark.
Mike had one last trick up his sleeve, and we headed to a point about eight miles from the dive centre.
He described the picturesque Kennock Bay as a holding area, unaffected by fast currents.
We clocked two sharks within moments of arriving. Judging by the distance between their dorsal and tail fins they must have been around 5m long, perhaps slightly bigger. I also caught sight of two 3.5m sharks, congregating in the same area.
Watching them all feed from the surface, they showed a distinct similarity to great white sharks. I could now understand why the two species were sometimes mistaken. Normally if you find one shark there will be three or four others following, said Mike. Theyre quite social animals.
Mike let the sharks get used to the boat engines before moving in closer.
I jumped into the water, and Darren towed me into position using the yum-yum yellow surf-ski.
I could see a large triangular dorsal fin heading in my direction, which was a little disconcerting. While I knew it was just a harmless plankton-feeder, I couldnt help but think, what if this one is a meat-eater instead of a veggie Basking sharks do have teeth. OK, they are only 5-6mm long, but still!
Mike was shouting out directions from his vantage point on the bridge: Left a little, now swim towards the boat... the shark is coming straight at you, you cant miss it!
I dunked my head under the surface and scanned the emerald water ahead. Visibility was around 5m. For a few seconds I could see nothing but a few passing mullet. Then a white patch appeared in front of me. It quickly grew into a giant gaping mouth.

I DUCK-DIVED FOR A CLOSER LOOK but this just made the shark veer away and close its mouth. It circled me for a few minutes, and actually nudged my camera dome. I couldnt have got much closer.
I spent the next hour and a half being towed and shouted at. I managed to take pictures of two good-sized sharks. It was like looking at an iceberg. At the surface, all I could see were the dorsal and tail fins, but under water the massive bulk of its body would be in full view.
The shark would keep circling, gulping up the plankton. I could see the bulging semi-circular gill slits as the giant passed by me. It didnt seem at all concerned by my presence, and as long as I didnt try to get too close it would just carry on feeding.
Darren joined me in the water, though trying to manoeuvre him into position beside a shark to provide some perspective proved too difficult, especially in the low visibility.
But I wasnt complaining - I had just had a one-to-one experience with the largest living shark in the ocean after the whale shark. Our timing had been perfect. Mike said I had been able to get really close because the lack of plankton meant that the sharks were more intent on feeding than on worrying about me.
On the way back to the dive centre we saw a large splash, followed by a giant shape coming out of the water. I had seen whales and great white sharks breaching, but never expected basking sharks to do the same. A small shark put on a spectacular aerial display as we followed it in the boat.
Mike had seen this happen only when the sharks were following each other in single file. He thought it was a kind of mating ritual. Another theory is that the sharks are trying to get rid of parasites attached to their skin.
Mike had also seen the sharks corralling mackerel into a shoal so tight that they would be forced to squeeze out their eggs. This would create a giant red egg-slick on the surface for the sharks to swallow. If only I had been quick enough to get that $1000 breaching picture!
As I sat outside the dive centre with a cuppa, I felt my day couldnt have gone much better. Ill find out next time.

Porthkerris Dive Centre, St Keverne, Cornwall, www.porthkerris.com