This article advocates for shark distancing. Learn more about codes of conduct around encounters with this species here (Video: Tony Whelan, on behalf of the IWDG and IBSP).
As of the last week in April of 2020, there have been large numbers of basking sharks reported along the western seaboard from Cork to Mayo, including Counties Kerry, Clare and Galway. Groups of up to 10 sharks have been seen at the surface from Slea Head to Achill Island, off Loop Head and the Aran Islands and the Beara peninsula. There have also been a few sightings off Co Waterford on the south coast. While this is certainly exciting, the Irish Basking Shark Project asks those encountering basking sharks at sea to please respect their space and maintain social distancing.
The basking shark is the second largest to swim in our planet’s oceans and occurs in Irish waters throughout the year. Growing as big as 10-12m and weighing up to 3-4 tonnes, they occur in huge numbers in inshore Irish waters during this time, when they come to the surface to feed on blooms of zooplankton. Basking sharks are seen every spring; however, with the fine weather of sunshine and calm seas (and maybe with people a little more attuned to nature in these unprecedented times), there seem to be more sightings than usual, and for a longer period.
Dr. Simon Berrow, founding member of the Irish Basking Shark Project who has been studying these sharks in Irish waters since 2008, has expressed some concern over the number of people swimming with these sharks and the potential disturbance. “While there is no law against swimming with these sharks, as they are not protected in Irish waters, we would ask swimmers, boaters and kayackers to respect social distancing so as not to disrupt the sharks’ natural behaviour,” said Dr Berrow. “For basking sharks, the recommended social distancing is 4 meters, not the 2 meters as required by our species.” Furthermore, the IBSP recommends not entering into the water to swim with sharks, but admire them from the shore (as advocated by IBSP researcher Alexandra McInturf to RTÉ). Both McInturf and Dr. Berrow remind boaters to remain 100 meters away from basking sharks and to cut their engines if basking sharks surface within that distance.
The IBSP strongly suggests that the best way to view basking sharks is to remain still and avoid disturbing them. Signs of disturbance or stress can be a shark closing its mouth, which may lead to decreased food intake. This is one of the most important feeding periods for basking sharks, and aggregations (like those spotted this weekend) are thought to be part of basking shark courtship behaviour. That makes spring-time In Ireland a key part of their life cycle, with any disturbances leading to unknown consequences for a species that was recently listed as endangered by the IUCN.
While you should never approach basking sharks, there is a chance that they may approach you. If that is the case, do not attempt to touch them, but remain still. By doing so, you will get to enjoy the moment in a way that gives you a great story but does not alter the sharks' natural behavior. Furthermore, such an experience could give you an opportunity to have a positive impact on basking sharks, by reporting the sighting here.
In sum, Dr. Berrow suggests people should “watch from a respectful distance, don't follow or try and touch them, and enjoy the incredible privilege of being close to one of nature’s gentle giants.”
Note: Basking sharks are provided with no protection in Irish waters, apart from an EU ban on capture and landing even if caught accidentally. It is illegal to willfully disturb or interfere with basking sharks in the UK, including Northern Ireland. Codes of Conduct have been published to reduce potential negative impacts of swimmers and boats. See https://www.sharktrust.org/basking-shark-project.
All photos taken by Dr. Simon Berrow unless specified as by Nigel Motyer.