Famous for being the most Northern Point in Ireland, Malin Head has in recent years, seen an increase in tourism. This may be due in part because this location, historically known as Banba’s Crown, has embraced a more modern mythology as a landing site for the Millennium Falcon in Disney’s The Last Jedi (2017).
Thanks to the multi-generational popularity of Star Wars, there has been an uptick in tourism to an area previously visited for its beautiful coastlines.
However, Malin Head has been hiding another secret, rarely advertised and, in my personal opinion, more interesting than being part of a feature film. Almost every summer, basking sharks will gather in the shallow coastal water surrounding the Irish Coast, and Malin Head is considered a “hot spot” for basking shark viewing in Ireland, as they gather in large groups there.
As an American, I didn’t learn of this fact until 2017. I have family in Ireland, and, despite visiting them on a regular basis, no one had bothered to tell me (the family Shark-Nerd) that the second largest fish in the world comes to Ireland (let alone helped me schedule a tour!). Curious about why my family vacations were comprised only of castles, I perused travel and tourism websites from Donegal and the Wild Atlantic Way and found that almost none of the advertising material mentioned basking sharks at all. What did catch my attention was that a large percentage of Air BnBs and tourism agencies mentioned Star Wars, demonstrating an interest in highlighting a unique attraction for Donegal and Malin, specifically.
I found myself wondering:
• Did people know about sharks in Ireland?
• Would people be willing to pay to view basking sharks?
• Would people support legal protections for basking sharks?
As a scientist (and a grad student in need of a thesis project) I knew how to find these answers. Therefore, in July of 2018, I packed a bag full of surveys and headed to the town of Buncrana, a short drive from Malin Head. Thanks to the 2018 heatwave and the Irish Open, people packed the beach and local walking trail. In total, I begged 230 individuals to fill out my survey, and 173 people (75%) helped a poor grad student out.
The questions in my (very tedious… I am so sorry survey takers!) questionnaire included…
• Knowledge questions (i.e. do you know what a basking shark eats?)
• Willingness to pay to view basking sharks
• Belief others would pay to view basking sharks
• Belief that marine tourism is good for the Irish economy
• Support for legal protections for basking sharks
• Demographic questions (i.e. age, gender, hobbies)
Back in America, I compared different answers together, to see if there were any trends or significant correlation between answers. For example, I found that almost half all survey respondents were not aware that basking sharks could be found in local waters. Similarly, over 90% of survey respondents were not aware of the length of a basking shark (with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 meters). Likewise, the majority of respondents did not know what basking sharks eat, though most people did know that basking sharks are not dangerous.
However, unexpectedly, there was no significant correlation between having correct knowledge of basking sharks and supporting their legal protections. In fact, the average survey respondent ranked their support for legal protections as 7.9 out of 10 (with 10 as “high support”). Similarly, a lack of knowledge about basking sharks did not make an individual significantly less likely o be willing to pay to view basking sharks, nor did it effect the belief that others would pay.
What did have a significant correlation was that those respondents who were more likely to support legal protections for basking sharks, were significantly more likely to pay to view basking sharks and to believe that others would pay to view basking sharks. They were also significantly more likely to say that marine tourism had a positive impact on the Irish economy. It’s not clear if people who are conservation-minded were more likely to view wildlife as profitable, or if the belief that sharks are profitable is the reason for support of their conservation. But there was a significant link between those two ideas.
My research demonstrates that there is currently an untapped market for safe and conservation-driven basking shark viewing in Donegal. It also demonstrates that the general public already recognizes that conservation of sharks is important and potentially profitable. This means that resources don’t always need to be diverted to “awareness” campaigns, and can instead focus on educational and conservation outreach that will have more long-lasting impacts. There is a persistent assumption that people don’t support conservation if they aren’t knowledgeable about an organism, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for basking sharks in Donegal.
Why does that matter? Well, basking sharks are still not protected in Ireland. The Malin-Hebrides shelf is such an ecologically significant region to basking sharks and other marine fauna that there is a current push to declare the Sea of Hebrides a marine protected area. If Ireland can increase protections for basking sharks in Malin Head (or country-wide), that effectively creates a wildlife corridor for basking sharks- giving them safe passage as they migrate between Ireland and Scotland, something they do annually.
A strong incentive for the protection of natural resources is economic gain. Time and again, sharks and whales have shown themselves to be highly profitable tourist attractions. My research shows a connection between profitability and support for conservation. Those who thought tourists would pay to view basking sharks were significantly more likely to support their conservation and view marine tourism is good for the economy.
Basking sharks are currently one of Ireland’s best kept secrets, but hopefully not for much longer. Next time that you head off to a summer hike in Malin Head, as you admire where the Millennium Falcon landed, make sure you keep an eye on the water. And, if you happen to see a basking shark, don’t forget to report your sightings to help us keep track of the animals roaming Irish waters!
Chelsea Gray earned her Master’s with this thesis in 2019 (available in our Downloads section). In addition to being an active member of the IBSP, she is currently a PhD student in Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason, still hard at work researching basking sharks. You can find her her @DivingwSharks on Twitter and Instagram. All photos in this piece are her own.