During a trip to the west coast of Scotland and its islands, I planned to try to see Basking Sharks. After the Whale Shark, the Basking Shark is the world’s second largest fish. Colossal but gentle giants that grace our western shores in the warmer months. From May, they can be see around the southern coast, and towards July they reach the Hebridean Islands, which is where I was planning to see them.
We set off from Loch Sunart on the mainland, through the waters that lie between the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the island of Mull, and headed west towards Coll. The water was choppy, and things weren’t looking promising for seeing sharks, cetaceans, or indeed much else in the water. Along the way we saw little other than the occasional Gannet and Great Skua, along with a few gulls.
As we drew closer towards Coll, a fin very briefly appeared. Moments later it re-appeared for a second and I was able to get an out of focus record of it. It was a Minke Whale – an unexpected bonus!
A section of Minke baleen plate, gifted to me by a former director of Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust
As we approached the Cairns of Coll, the sea became remarkably calm and between the small rocky islets, it took on an amazingly vibrant turquoise shade. The water was incredibly clear too. Arctic Terns were all around, and both Common and Grey Seals were to be seen hauled up on the rocks.
Finally, seemingly from nowhere a large fin surfaced. Then another, and another. By this point the boat’s engine had been killed. Basking Sharks were all around us. We ended up losing count of the number of sharks, but it was at least in the twenties. As they cruised the shallow waters, scooping up vast amounts of plankton in their mega-mouths, they would occasionally drift closer and closer to the boat, at times passing directly alongside or underneath it. A long lens was no use for a subject so large and so close, but this was a creature I’d wanted to see for many years, and I didn’t want to experience the whole thing through a tiny viewfinder anyway.
As the sharks fed near the boat, it was possible to see right inside their gaping 2 metre jaws, and back out again through their huge gills. Totally disinterested in the boat, they were here for plankton only. At up to 11 metres in length, sharing the waters with these creatures was amazing.
A year later, I decided to try to film some underwater. 2014 was not a good year for Basking Shark sightings in the Hebrides though, particularly whilst I was there, and not a single shark was seen this time. Their movements are still something of a mystery, though through satellite tagging, more is being learnt now. Whether they were elsewhere in the world while I was there, or simply feeding at greater depths, I don’t know. I’ll definitely be back to see them again one day though.
Whilst I didn’t manage to film the sharks that day, a nice consolation was the appearance of a pod of Common Dolphins. Here’s the footage…