Words by Gene Cahill
Photos by Gene Cahill
Video footage by Gene Cahill and Gerry Geaney
The Basking Shark (Cetorhinus Maximus) is the second largest fish in the oceans, second only to the Whale Shark. They can grow on average up to 9 metres in length, weigh up to 7 tonnes (although averaging about 4-5 tonnes) and have a mouth almost 1-metre wide. They are quite common in Irish and UK waters during the summer months as they feed on zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates.
Newspaper reports of basking shark sightings are generally inaccurate with alarmist and false headlines. “The alarming moment kayaker gets up close to a giant basking shark off the Irish coast”; “It’s behind you! Terrifying giant shark swims up to Cornwall surfer”; “Giant shark recreates terrifying scene from Jaws as it dwarfs boat in popular British beach resort”, were just some of the headlines on newspapers in Ireland and Britain over the summer. Headlines such as these tend to give all sharks a bad name – something that does nothing to help awareness of the fact that many of these creatures are threatened with extinction. The above headlines were specifically about basking sharks and they give lie to the fact that Cetorhinus Maximus is a true gentle giant of our oceans and totally harmless to humans.
Basking sharks are members of the mackerel shark order, which includes among others, the Sandtiger, Goblin, Megamouth, Thresher, Porbeagle, White, Short-fin Mako, Longfin Mako and Crocodile sharks. Basking sharks are characterized by their powerful crescent-shaped tail, very large mouth, pointed nose and five huge gill slits, which almost encircle its head. The basking shark is one of only three plankton-feeding shark species, the other two being the whale shark and megamouth shark. The basking shark is a unique feeder however, in that it is the only shark species that feeds entirely placidly: it swims through the water with its mouth open rather than actively sucking in water for filtering. Its primary prey is zooplankton, which is trapped by the sharks’ gillrakers – long comb-like structures on the sharks’ gills. In summer months these sharks are seen very close to the surface of the water as they feed. Their close proximity to the surface is what gives them their name, as they appear to bask in the warm weather. The Irish name for the Basking Shark is An Liamhán Gréine – which translates as Sun (or Sail) Fish from their habit of being close to the surface to catch the sun’s rays and because of the size of its dorsal fin!
In winter however, basking sharks go much deeper and are often found at depths of up to 900metres feeding on the communities of deepwater plankton. Basking sharks travel huge distances. According to The Shark Trust, a basking shark tagged off the Isle of Man on Britain’s western coast was recorded off the coast of Newfoundland demonstrating its trans-Atlantic migration. Another tagged basking shark off the New England coastline was subsequently recorded crossing the equator into the waters of the southern hemisphere.
I first experienced one of these leviathans about 5 years ago, off Ballycotton Island on the County Cork coast. I had been paddling in a sit-on-top alongside a friend when we noticed what we initially thought was a large bird on the water’s surface a few hundred yards away. We noticed something large and black or dark grey, flapping gently, almost like a bird’s wing in the distance. As we kayaked closer, the ‘flopping wing’ stopped flopping and suddenly seemed to move upright and head for my kayak. In my head I realized it was a basking shark but I’d be lying if I said those first few seconds didn’t instill a feeling of terror as a large dorsal fin headed towards my small sit-on-top kayak. Recollections of watching Jaws ran through my mind, perhaps even the soundtrack too: Duh duh! I did feel my heart begin to beat a bit faster and I can recall a sudden increase in the speed of my breathing. This was despite the fact that I knew it was a basking shark and that it was harmless to humans. As the fin approached, I began to make out a dark grey shadow under the surface. Suddenly the fin turned and the shark swam alongside my boat. I had relaxed at this stage, almost embarrassed at my reaction of pure terror, even if it only lasted a few seconds! I watched as the shadow swam alongside my boat, so close, had I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched the fin. My own kayak at the time was about 11-12 feet in length. It was almost the same distance as the shark’s dorsal fin to his tail. I remember just thinking to myself “He’s huge!” The shark circled my boat a few times and then moved off, continuing his feeding. Within minutes, a 2nd and 3rd shark appeared nearby. We were now totally at ease in our kayaks as these giant sharks swam nearby. We spent over 30 minutes in the company of these magnificent creatures. I hadn’t had my sit-on-top very long and this experience was by far one of the best in my short kayaking career!
It would be 5 years later before I would once more encounter Cetorhinus Maximus from the close proximity of my sea kayak. It was a balmy summer’s evening in June and myself and 3 friends were kayaking off the western side of the Old Head of Kinsale. It was the season for basking sharks and there had been a number of sightings in the area over the previous 2 weeks. We weren’t specifically looking for sharks, but as usual there was a hope that we would at some stage encounter them! We were about 30 minutes into our paddle and heading towards one of the arches/caves that lead under the Old Head, when we noticed a slow moving fin about a hundred metres ahead of us. As we continued paddling, I heard one of my friends call me, telling me there was a fin behind me … following my kayak! Duh duh! There would be no fear or momentary horror this evening! I looked behind and saw a basking shark’s dorsal fin about 5 metres directly behind me. I stopped paddling and it disappeared as it came closer. Looking down on my right hand side, I noticed a shadow passing under my boat, pretty much directly under my cockpit. As I turned to look over the left hand side, I could see the slow moving giant, as it moved under. I took a deep breath as I realized just how large this shark really was. It was huge! When it had fully passed under and was slightly ahead of me, the large fin resurfaced and I could just about make out its distinctive tail, a few feet behind it, just below the surface but its movement making little indentations on the water’s surface. Another shark soon appeared and we all paddled close by, savouring a magical moment. With these giants in such close proximity, we were careful to remain calm and quiet. The last thing we wanted to do was make any sudden movements that would startle the sharks. A disturbed shark, even one as gentle as Cetorhinus Maximus will often trash their tail with ferocious power and we didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that! Basking sharks have also been known to breach and we were under no illusions as to the damage a shark averaging 4.5 tonnes landing on or near our kayaks would do. After a few minutes, the fins disappeared and we thought we had seen the last of these magnificent creatures. We kayaked through some of the arches and emerged on the eastern side of the Old Head of Kinsale. As we paddled around the headland itself and back along the western side of the coast, more fins appeared, some in the distance and others alongside us as we paddled. At one stage we counted over 20 different fins in our proximity, some bigger than others but each sharks’ length dwarfing our sea kayaks! As the sun began to set over the seven heads in the west, it cast a beautiful golden glow on the water. Coupled with the shark fins slowly moving, it created one of the most magical moments I’ve ever experienced kayaking. For over an hour we paddled with these magnificent sharks, their size and movement mesmerizing us all. “Megalodon lives!” joked one of our group. And the knowledge that we were paddling alongside the oceans’ second largest fish made the moment even more special and unique.
One of the many things that struck me while paddling alongside these sharks was the realization that we were paddling with a species of shark that was very close to extinction and still remains critically endangered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service has declared them a ‘species of concern’ in the Pacific Ocean. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a red list of threatened species and Basking Sharks have been classed as globally vulnerable and endangered in the Northeast Atlantic and North Pacific. There are areas off both the Californian and British Columbian coasts where basking shark sightings were recorded in the thousands between the early-mid 1900s. However, sightings of these sharks since the mid-1990s are now recording only single figures. Basking sharks were deliberately hunted for hundreds of years for the large quantities of oil in their livers – a basking shark’s liver makes up about 25% of its entire body weight. This oil was subsequently used for lighting or industrial use. As a result of this hunting, numbers drastically declined. Fisheries targeting basking sharks were established in areas all over the world – off the coasts of California, Vancouver, Ireland, Norway, Japan and New Zealand among many others. The Asian demand for shark fins (believed to be an aphrodisiac) also led to the targeting of basking sharks for their huge fins. Today basking sharks are afforded some protection under international agreements between countries signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Despite this, the Marine Conservation Society reports that basking sharks continue to be illegally landed along the Atlantic coast, albeit in small numbers. One of the biggest threats to basking sharks today is bycatch – when sharks get accidentally entangled in fishing nets. There would be no such danger for the basking sharks tonight – for they were among kayaking friends!
Very little information is known about basking sharks in comparison to many others. In a cruel irony, much of what we know about their behaviour has been gleamed from the very fisheries that have virtually wiped them out. In recent years in the UK and Ireland there have been more efforts to discover more about this species of shark. Projects like the Irish Basking Shark Project and The Shark Trust in Britain have made attempts to monitor migratory behavior through tagging and have involved the public in reporting sightings of basking sharks along British and Irish coasts. Educational programmes have also been developed in an effort to develop and raise awareness. In the US, Project Aware has led grassroots change and campaigned for legislative changes in International Law to protect many shark species from illegal hunting.
That summer’s evening in June will remain forever imprinted in my mind. To see footage of a basking shark on television, or view photos in a magazine is one thing; but to be in one’s company, literally feet from this ocean colossus, is an entirely different matter. It was awe-inspiring and unforgettable being alongside them and sharing the same stretch of water. Sharks have been swimming the earth’s oceans for over 400 million years, and have survived all five mass extinctions. Paul Watson, one of the original founding members of Greenpeace and founder of Sea Shepherd describes the importance of sharks in our modern world: “Sharks have molded evolution for 450 million years. All fish species that are prey to the sharks have had their behaviors, their speed, their camouflage, their defense mechanisms molded by the shark.” Our brief encounter one summer’s evening with one species of shark was a wonderful link to our prehistoric and evolutionary past. It connected us to the Ordivician Period (some 455 million years ago) when the earliest sharks first swam the earth’s oceans. Such an experience, such connectivity, was captivating and powerful. For that hour, we paddled among giants!
As well as my own limited experiences, I must credit the following with enhancing my knowledge of basking sharks, endangered species and conservation efforts: