Basking sharks spend their summers swimming around Scotland, but in the fall, they vanish – Scottish scientists are trying to find out more about the patterns of these gentle giants in the hopes of creating a conservation area for them.
Often reaching a length of 8 metres in adulthood, these marine creatures are one of the largest type of sharks, and can be an alarming sight.
The inside of a basking shark’s massive mouth looks almost like a ribcage, and it can open wide enough to swallow a human being. Luckily for us, a basking shark is more interested in catching plankton in its gaping maw than a person.
The Inner Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland, is where these sharks have been spotted the most.
“For several years we’ve been gathering information about how they move, where they go in the winter, when they come back to Scotland,” said Dr. Matt Witt, of the University of Exeter, “but we’ve never really understood whether they find mates (when they’re away), whether they’re eating, how they might socialize with other individuals.”
Researchers are deploying high tech methods in their quest to learn more about the sharks.
An underwater robot with a camera on the front has been programmed to track basking sharks and send information back to scientists above the water in the real time.
“It’s talking to us right now,” said Amy Kuklya, a researcher with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to ocean research. “So it’s basically sending out a message to us and it would be telling us its speed, its direction, and it would also be telling us really cool information about the shark that it’s tracking.”
Basking sharks decreased drastically in number during the 20th century due to humans, and the population has never quite rebounded. These sharks were hunted down largely for their rich liver oil, but also for their massive dorsal fins, a prize ingredient for shark fin soup.
Scotland is not the only place where large numbers of basking sharks have been spotted.
The largest basking shark ever recorded was in Canada, in the Bay of Fundy in 1851. But although basking sharks were once a common sight around Canada, particularly in the Pacific, an eradication program was launched in the 1950s to get rid of what was considered at the time a nuisance to fishermen.
Boats were affixed with a sharpened ram on the bow to impale and kill the harmless species. The practice wasn’t officially ended until 1970. Basking sharks are now considered endangered in the Pacific by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Scotland has put more research into these sharks than any other country. And the Inner Hebrides could soon be home to the underwater sanctuary scientists believe the sharks deserve.
Dr. Jenny Oates, of the World Wildlife Fund says the case for conservation could be even stronger if the area is found to be a mating meet-up.
“They might be using the area for breeding, in which case it would be a really important area for basking sharks and an area that we need to protect.”