In an unusual departure from political disagreement, three Inishowen based politicians have united in support and praise of a marine research project that is investigating the potential of Basking shark eco-tourism off Malin head.
Charlie McConalogue T.D., John Ryan, Donegal Councillor and Micky Grant, Buncrana Town Councillor are all on the record as pledging support for the project which secured funding from the Inishowen Development Partnership to discover the feeding habits of the shark species which can grow to the size of a bus. These creatures seem to satisfy all the tourism needs; big as a bus, harmless and docile in nature and framed by the dramatic backdrop of the Malin head coast, which has been identified as an important gathering point for their seasonal migrations.
"The problem lies in predicting their local movements and knowing when they will be on the surface and readily viewable," says the project's lead researcher Emmett Johnston. The IDP, in conjunction with Queens University Belfast have supported the development of prototype, high-tech Timed Depth Recorder tags, which when attached to the sharks will monitor their movements both below and above the water. Before now the researchers had to rely on information solely from the sharks activities on the waters surface. Now they will be able to produce a 3D image of the shark's movements and they hope to couple the findings with a substantial monitoring programme of oceanic features including the movement of basking shark food, or plankton.
"We've tagged 57 sharks this year, and deployed a substantial number of TDRs to match," said Emmett. "Considering nobody has ever done this before, it's hard to know if you're on the right track." By studying the sharks the team also discovered a dramatic change in the Atlantic Ocean's seasons during 2011. They explained that this year has been very unusual, with a 6-8 week difference in temperatures and animal movements. "Imagine summer came two months early," explained Emmett. "You'd be wondering what's going on." Thanks to the project, the researchers know how the food chain is reacting to this change and they are linking this to the sharks' movements and ultimately, the discovery of when and where is the best time to see sharks on the surface.
The tags are bright yellow floats with little yellow and red flags attached, timed to pop off the shark after a pre-determined period and either be collected by the team using radio receivers or wash up on a beach. "We named three of the tags after the local political supporters so if you see Charlie, John or Micky all washed up on a beach, don't just leave them there. Pick them up and get in touch," added Emmett. More information can be found at www.baskingshark.ie