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Displaying items by tag: basking shark
Thursday, 04 August 2011 07:06

Interview with a Shark

BBC Foyle’s marine correspondent Mark Patterson took a few hours out of his busy schedule to record an interview with the largest fish in the Atlantic Ocean, the Basking Shark.

Before boarding the Inishowen basking shark project’s vessel ‘Seashell’ Mark began recording his programme by capturing the soul of Irelands most northerly community, the mixed sounds of young and old enjoying the water on a busy evening at Port Mor, Malin head. A wry smile crosses his lips as his handheld Dictaphone records the screams of delight as children dive off the pier end. Talk of hooks, lines and of course the weather is coupled with the gurgling motors of a few small fishing vessels and Jet Ski’s. By chance a young boy no more than 7 years old kayaks up to ’Seashell’. With no inhibitions, young Mr Tar paddles a circle around the vessel, he knows more about the RIB’s Yamaha engine and outboard unit than most qualified marine engineers. It doesn’t take much time to realise its not flash cars than make a splash up at the top, its boats, boats and anything that floats. Welcome to Malin head on a sunny summers day.

Soon the shark research team leave behind the sounds of the community and head out past saddle rock to the low wine of the RIB’s engine. Their destination is Inishtrahull sound, a deep oceanic trench lying 3 miles north of Malin head. This part of Irelands coastline is rugged and has a reputation for rough sea’s and massive tides. It’s hard to imagine that today as the glorious sunshine and calm seas of the early morning give way to a light breeze and strong tides. “Light variable winds, good sunshine and strong tides to match, perfect shark surfacing conditions”, stated Emmett Johnston who’s heading up the Inishowen based project.

Mark explains to the research team that the programme will be part of a series focusing on peoples connections with the sea along the north coast. He already knows about the basking shark project having followed it on the web for the past few years. This time though he’s here to see it all unfold in the flesh. Today’s task for the team is to find a basking shark and gather as much information about that individual animal as possible. The team who already spent 10 hours that day sampling plankton, have a number of techniques they use for studying the sharks. These include attaching various types of tags, sliming for DNA as well as photo and underwater video recording.


The leviathan like sharks use Malin head as a focal point for their seasonal migration explains Emmett and we attach coloured and numbered tags to them in order to trace their movements when they have left Irish waters. This year thanks to support from the locally based Inishowen Development Partnership the project developed a number of new high tech tags with Queens University Belfast. ”These new tags are the real deal; they are on the limit of what technology can offer us in the 21st century. When we get these back we’ll be able to build up a 3D picture of the shark’s movements underwater and surfacing habits”, say Donal Griffin a research student with the project, its all about trying to understand what drives them up to ’Bask’ and how can we link that to possible sustainable tourism activities he adds.

“On the Bow, there, there, 50 yards out” shouts Mark with boy like excitement, he spots a shark just south of Inishtrahull Island and the team scramble to prepare the yellow tag for deployment. “ easy, easy.. go ..go.. go”, Emmett calls to the helm as they approach the shark from an acute angle. With tag raised high on the Harpoon pole, Neutral, he shouts as the tag goes in and the shark dives with about as much annoyance as a bee sting. The team shake hands; that’s ‘Marko’ away they say having named the shark with White 456 tag deployed on its side. Mark smiles, his enthusiasm washes over the boat, “wow, wow man, that was crazy” he stutters out eyes wide. The other members of the team are busy recording the important data and features of the shark. A well oiled machine they are now so accustomed to the spectacle they don’t even grin, well just a little and you can’t blame them, White 456 or ‘Marko’ is tag number 57 for the 2011 season, an impressive tally by any accounts.

Looking back towards the mainland a thin low lying cloud obscures the top of the dramatic vegetated cliffs, Imagine Jurassic park and your getting close. This is Irelands most northerly coastline, remote, rugged and the salty fresh air is filled with adventure. Add in 6-8m shark’s which occasionally breach and you have a location to match anywhere in the world. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else, doing anything else, this is as good as it gets” states Emmett as they discuss the projects aims for the future.

The Inishowen basking shark study group are part of the Irish Basking shark Project who conduct research on the basking shark in order to promote their conservation and protection in Irish and Atlantic waters. To find out more log onto www.baskingshark.ie

Published in News
Friday, 08 July 2011 18:23

Sharks indicate ocean change

The Inishowen based basking shark study group have detected dramatic changes in 2011 throughout the Atlantic Ocean. The team of scientists who started out tracking basking shark movements became interested in plankton (basking shark food) due to the unusual lack of shark sightings.

Plankton is the basis of all life in the ocean and if you know what the plankton is doing you have a very good idea what everything else is going to do explained Donal Griffin a student with Queens University Belfast and a researcher with the IBSSG. The project which is supported by the Inishowen Development Partnership started out investigating the secrets behind the movement of basking sharks in Inishowen and Atlantic waters but the research team quickly realised that 2011 was going to be different. "We've had allot of ups and downs this year; we had really dense aggregations of sharks in April a whole month earlier than usual, then pretty much no large groupings throughout May and June and now we are seeing jellyfish species and Sunfish in Inishowen waters 4-6 weeks before any previous records", says Emmett Johnston coordinator of the project. He added "We have always advocated the basking shark as a fantastic indicator species for monitoring global climate and ocean change and this year we have proven it".

Although initially disappointed with the lack of shark activity the scientists quickly understood that the strange goings on offered a perfect comparison to previous 'normal' year's records. Preliminary results show the key to the shark's movements is the distribution and density of their food; plankton, which at the surface is determined by sunshine and wind speeds. Emmett went on to say "Having a good hunch or theory is one thing but being able to robustly prove it to the scientific world is another, obviously we hoped for hundreds of sharks but in hindsight we should have actually been wishing for what we got this year, which was little or no activity, because that has provided us with a robust set of figures to prove what marine biologist's have been discussing for the last 50 years". 

There is allot of unknown variables when it comes to the ocean not least the changes in temperature at different depths. This year's research has shown that the unseasonably rough weather was really a bit of a red herring when it comes to oceanographic changes. Researcher Donal Griffen summed it up like this "It sounds complicated but if you can imagine a cross section of the ocean like a sandwich of layers, each layer has a different density and different temperature. Normally we get a higher temperature at the surface than the underlying main body of water but this year the surface of the ocean has been cooler than normal but the Atlantic as a whole has been warmer and it's this difference that has given rise to the 4- 6 week difference in animal's movements". The team believe the ongoing studies on the basking shark are vital to discovering and monitoring the links between Irish waters and the wider Atlantic Ocean.

Published in News
Tuesday, 05 July 2011 18:21

Leviathans on the move !

A basking shark that was tagged in Dingle Bay, Co. Kerry SW Ireland by the Irish Basking Shark Project on the 20 of April has been re-sighted in Scottish waters. The shark was tagged with a green tag number 209 and was re-sighted by an eco-tourism boat at Cairns of Coll, Western Scotland on the afternoon of Wednesday 29 of June along with a number of other sharks. This shark would have travelled over 600km in two months! It is the first international re-sighting for 2011.

Previous re-sighting records have shown that basking sharks tagged in Irish waters have turned up in Scottish waters later in the season. Research scientist Lucy Hunt from the Kerry basking shark team said ‘Generally we see the sharks move north after we have tagged them in the early summer months. Last year we tagged a shark off Cork in May and within 48 days it was re-sighted off the Isle of Muck in Scottish waters. Further tagging research into basking shark migrations is needed to understand the route and waters they use to help conserve this vulnerable and endangered species.’
Two basking shark research teams working off Malin head, Co. Donegal and the Blasket Islands, Co. Kerry have tagged 93 individual sharks this summer. The striking coloured tags have become a significant method in Ireland in the seasonal monitoring of shark movements and behaviour. The Irish teams have deployed over 350 tags since 2008 compared to less than 20 in other oceans. They have had numerous international re-sightings from over 800km away from the tagging site.

The Irish Basking Shark Project are making a special request to all boat users and people out on the coast to keep an eye out for basking sharks and report any tagged sharks. For more information see www.baskingshark.ie or you can check us out on Facebook – Irish Basking Shark Project.

Published in News
Wednesday, 11 May 2011 18:20

Baskers in the Kingdom

At the end of April we took the opportunity in the fine weather to get out tagging and sampling basking sharks in Kerry, where sharks had been reported for 2 weeks previous around the Blasket Islands! We were lucky to find basking sharks on all sides of Slea head and the Blaskets. For this trip we planned to also gender the leviathan sharks and I was excited, as I knew this meant I was going to be snorkelling with them. It was three summers previous I had had my first encounter with these sharks snorkelling off Bolus head with over 20 sharks in the water where plankton had amassed in a small inlet! It was an experience I wanted to relive only this time it would be better as I would be contributing to science. The slime samples we collected and the gender of the sharks, which I would observe, would be used for genetic studies. Once we had tagged and slime sampled sharks I would enter the water and snorkel with them to first note the tag number then gender them and catch what I could on camera! To identify a male shark we look out for a pair of claspers on the ventral surface near the anal fin these claspers are absent in females.  A seemingly easy enough task but as with everything in the field there is always something to make it that bit more challenging!

As I was dropped in the water about five meters in front of the first shark approx 8m in length- one of the largest animals I have ever been in the sea with, enveloped by the chilling Atlantic, the leviathan swam straight towards me angled slightly and swam by leaving me swimming frantically in it's wake to keep up and capture it on my digital camera. As it passed by I caught a glimpse of it's tag number 328 and videoed it's underside, which had about 8 lampreys on it making it impossible to distinguish claspers with the quick encounter I was allowed! I would have to scrutinise the video when back on dry land to determine its gender. Lampreys are parasitic fish that attach to basking sharks.

The giant shark glided by with effortless motion once more allowing another short lived observation of this fantastic species leaving me alone again in the Blasket Sound where my colleagues collected me and I was awarded with tea and biscuits and listened to intently on my encounter! Whilst telling my tale I was looking over my listeners shoulders only to witness one of the most incredible things I have seen - a basking shark breach clean out of the water! Everyone turned with cameras ready to catch the next breach but nothing happened. So we continued tagging in the area but the sharks seemed that bit more flighty than we had normally encountered and it was a bit more challenging for Nick our skipper to get to them without first scaring them off, he did a great job though as by noon Dr. Berrow had over 20 sharks tagged.

Just before heading out of the Sound for shelter from the wind on the south of Great Blasket I was looking towards land and lo and behold another breach - I was enraptured and a thrilled laughter overtook me  when everyone turned and we all watched on as another shark breached twice!! A truly spellbinding experience to watch! This elaborate behaviour is often associated with mating and or ridding of parasites but we are still unsure.

We moved to the south of Great Blasket to get some shelter from the wind and spotted three sharks nose to tail swimming and another few sharks in the distance, once these sharks were tagged and slime sampled I hopped in the water to get some more gender information, again more lampreys hindering views. We then spotted two smaller looking sharks close to the rocks and went in for a look tagging and slime sampling one. The water was like a plankton soup hopping with activity in the recess where the sharks were scooping it up!  GMIT marine biology student John Power and I immersed ourselves in the lively water to see if we could get any more info for the project, once in the water our faces tickled by the plankton which the sharks were after. Sea gooseberries (a type of small jelly fish) were iridescent with phosphorescent rays running down their bodies perhaps warning of their fate to come when all of a sudden a huge shark came out of the murkiness and straight for me and John, on noticing our presence it closed it's gaping mouth and turned away, John dove to observe more lampreys on another shark. Whilst we had been in the water the team on the boat were busy tagging other sharks nearby and witnessed another shark breaching!

We spotted more sharks further off and followed them out where they were nose to tail swimming and parallel swimming; behaviour also associated with courtship and mating! Once these were tagged and sampled we hopped in the water with what we thought was one shark yet there were two below this one - proving that for every one we see at the surface there may very well be many more beneath! We were able to see their tag numbers but not get below them to gender them as the sharks swam around us in circles reminding me of the predatory behaviour other shark species exhibit and in what seemed like an eternity I was encircled by three very large sharks their mouths wide open filtering the plankton rich water not leaving me with much space to exit the circle! Eventually they descended into the depths and I swam after them but once again was left behind.

The day edged on and I wanted to get some zooplankton samples to assess predator prey relationships so samples were taken in the presence of sharks and at our four other stations, which we had started to sample in 2010. On our return more sharks were seen and a minke whale amongst a feeding frenzy of sea gulls and gannets diving for sandeel. Then in the shelter of Coomenoule two more sharks appeared giving everyone the opportunity of donning a mask and looking in over the edge of the boat at these spectacular animals.

It was a very successful field day with great teamwork from all involved as we deployed over 35 visual tags, obtained 15 shark slime samples for genetic studies. Obtaining dorsal fin photos for the photo id catalogue and taking plankton samples for predator prey analysis and also in water observations. At least 60 sharks were seen in the waters around the Blasket islands as well as four minke whales and over 20 common dolphins before it was time to go home when the sun was setting over the Atlantic horizon.

Guidelines for swimming/boating in the presence of basking sharks
http://www.baskingsharks.org/content.asp?did=26602&rootid=6210

Article by
Lucy Hunt

Published in News
Tuesday, 03 May 2011 18:19

Tory story

The North Donegal Coast was the set location for an interesting tagging tale with a remarkable 24 visual tags deployed and the first ever deployment of a Timed Depth Recorder (TDR) on a Basking Shark. These sophisticated pieces of modern technology are designed to investigate the basking sharks surfacing habits in Irish and north-east Atlantic waters.

It all began on Tuesday the 27th when the North Donegal shark team received an email from Tory islander Deirdre Sweeney. Deirdre reported 12 sharks near the islands Harbour entrance and more out in the sound.  The teams Rib 'Seashell' was readied with extra fuel and supplies stored for the longer than usual journey. Thursday the 28th brought calm sea's and light winds perfect conditions for the run to Tory island from Lough Swilly and of course for basking sharks to surface.

As soon as the team arrived at Tory they spotted their first shark of the day and they wasted no time in photographing the distinctive dorsal fin of the animal and deploying a visual tag. Within minutes more sharks started to surface along a distinctive tidal line 500m off the islands coast. What followed can only be described as a tagging spree, as 24 sharks received their new individually numbered identifies. The team also took a number of slime samples, recorded high definition underwater footage and captured numerous dorsal fin pictures. That not being enough the team decided that the time was right to deploy two of their QUB developed and Inishowen Development Partnership funded TDR's.

These prototype tags specially developed for this project were initially put out a trial basis for only a few hours. Two medium size sharks were chosen and deployment went perfectly. One tag (150.079mhz) was recovered two hours later with usable data and the other tag '150.137mhz' which was put on for a longer period was not recovered due to deteriorating weather conditions. We know the tag is still out there broadcasting because Donal Griffen from the North Donegal basking shark research team detected a signal off the tag near Tory Island by Yaggi antennae from Horn head 24 hours later.

For the final tale of shark number 475 with tag '150.137 Mhz' and the tags eventual recovery... you'll have to wait for the sequel !

Published in News
Monday, 02 May 2011 18:18

Stranded shark sculptured

Not for the faint hearted or those of you with a strong sense of smell but a basking shark which stranded at Sandeel Bay Co. Wexford, has been put under the knife and it's skin taken for a sculpture by artist Dorothy Cross.

The stranding report initially came in via text on the 21st April from Liam Coffer to Deirdre Slevin, who together with Willie Delaney went down to the beach and took photos, skin samples and measured the animal.

Many thanks to everyone who reported the shark especially to those who sent pictures, particular thanks to Podge Sheenhan and friends, Noel Murray, Darren Gallagher who passed on the best photo of all: Six-year-old Christian Diem with the shark before it was skinned (see picture).

We really appreciate people taking the time to send emails, photos and texts to us and the information is valuable and will directly assist in the creation of a basking shark species action plan in which we aim to set out a road map for basking shark conservation.

Published in News
Sunday, 24 April 2011 18:16

Basking sharks aplenty in the Kingdom

A text message from tom Hands of Dingle on the 19 April informing me of two basking sharks near his mooring off Great Blasket alerted us to the presence of these magnificent animals off Kerry. I forwarded the message to Nick Massett who during a watch that evening watched (and photographed) one shark breaching three times. The weather was forecast to be excellent on 20 April so we decided to try our first basking shark research trip to Kerry for the season.

An experienced crew of Simon Berrow, Lucy Hunt and skipper Nick Massett on his 6m RIB "Miol Mor" met an Ventry, along with my father who at 82 wanted to see basking sharks before he died ! As well as seeking basking sharks Lucy was collecting zooplankton samples as part of her work on trying to determine what drives the presence of these animals in inshore Irish waters.

During our first plankton sampling at Fahan we got a call from Mick Sheeran of 4 basking sharks off his mooring at Tra Mor on Great Blasket. We found them easily cruising in a line back and forth in from of the magnificent sandy beach on Great Blasket.

After a hour when we tagged five animals and took plankton samples we decided to visit Coomenole and Wild Bank to collect more plankton and head for Ventry. We found another two sharks off Slea Head and on our way into Dingle bay found more on the surface with five in one group feeding nose to tail. An amazing site and one to satisfy the desires of an 82 year old man.  We tagged another 10 sharks before we had to head for Ventry for us to get the last ferry back to Co Clare.  This is early for us but a recent email from colleague Eric Stephan at APECS in France informed us that sharks have appeared very early off the Brittany coast this year.

So a great start to the season in Kerry with 15 sharks tagged. During the whole of last year we only manage to tag five off Co Kerry !! Sharks in Kerry are given a green tag, which show well underwater, so if anybody sees a green tagged shark it is from the Kingdom.

Many thanks to Tom Hand and Mick Sheeran for their continued support.

Published in News
Wednesday, 13 April 2011 18:15

Marine feast off Malin

The Inishowen Basking Shark research team hit the jackpot on Sunday with perfect calm waters and clear blue sky's off Malin head. The shark team were out undertaking some preliminary field trials of their Inishowen Development Partnership funded depth tags when they encountered large aggregations of Basking sharks and a number of Minke whales. The team quickly switched to tagging mode and managed to deploy 18 individual visual tags before the wind picked up and the Sea State effected the shark's activity on the surface. Lead researcher with the team Emmett Johnston said "This really gets the 2011 season off with a bang and the changeable winds provided the team with excellent opportunities for recording how the shark's behaviour changed with the weather patterns through out the day". They estimated that there were approximately 30 basking sharks and two Minke whales within 500m of Malin head for about 4 hours on Sunday.

The team has secured funding from the Inishowen development Partnership and support from local councillor Micky Grant and TD Charle McConalogue to investigate the sharks surfacing patterns and assist commercial eco/marine tourism operators to develop the area. During 2011 the Inishowen project will be undertaken in conjunction with Queens University Belfast and followed by a number of television programmes for RTE and UTV. They intend to deploy a number of different radio-wave and satellite tags on the sharks throughout the summer and are asking everyone who is on or near the coastline to keep their eyes peeled for the specially made tags. The tags are yellow and about two-foot in length, they are designed to pop off the sharks at a pre-determined time and can often wash up on the shore. If you find a tag or are interested in the project, more information can be found on the surveys page of this website.

Published in News
Saturday, 02 April 2011 18:14

Early 2011 sightings

Basking shark sightings are starting to trickle into the project teams around the country as days of calm waters have created excellent surface encounter conditions. The Irish Navy were the first in 2011 to report a sighting off the south coast followed by sightings at the Blasket islands, Donegal Bay, Inishboffin, Garvan Isles off Malin Head and finally three together just off Malin Head Pier.

These sightings are early in comparison to previous years but these creatures are extremely unpredictable and relatively little is known about what drives their movements. It was taught water temperature and plankton densities were responsible but recent research based in Ireland might indicate that previously noted thresholds and drivers for feeding and surfacing are now not accurate.

Studying basking sharks is often not an exact science, and research teams need to be ready at the drop of a hat. The sharks have certainly caught all the Irish based teams off guard this year, as their preparations are still ongoing. Most studies are focused around May - June, which usually sees the peek in surface encounters. This year the Irish based teams will be continuing their Internationally significant work, they have formed new partnerships and have developed a number of new tags for deployment.  The Irish basking shark project hope that by this season's end Ireland will be closer to establishing legislative protection for basking sharks in Irish waters.

Published in News
Thursday, 31 March 2011 18:13

Funding secured for depth charge project

The Inishowen Development Partnership have agreed to support a new research initiative which the Inishowen based basking shark team have developed for 2011. The project aims to link locally based Internationally significant scientific research with practical outcomes for commercial tourism operators.

Building on the team's pioneering visual tagging and survey development research the project will investigate shark-surfacing patterns and link these movements with key hydrological, meteorological and biological drivers. The information will then be made available in practical format to commercial boat operators on the north Donegal coast. If a boat operator can estimate the potential for surface encounters with basking sharks before they leave the pier, the day can be accurately planned.   

Lead researcher on the project is local shark biologist Emmett Johnston together with Queens University scientists Donal Griffen and Jonathan Houghton. The TDR project is undertaken with Queens University Belfast as the scientific oversee. Timed Depth Recorders have never been deployed on Basking sharks before and the team is developing two new prototype tags in order to achieve the project aims.

Two types of tag will be deployed

MK1: short term deployment tag with mini radio transmitter for aid of retrieval
MK2: long term deployment tag to be washed ashore and retrieved by members of public. 

For more information on the project go to the surveys section of the website.

Published in News
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