Friday, August 5, 2011

Basking Sharks not much in evidence!

I have recently finished reading the first book written by Gavin Maxwell, in 1952, " Harpoon at a Venture". It relates to his ill-fated attempts to set up a sharkfishing enterprise in the late 1940's based on Soay, off the southern coast of the Isle of Skye, Scotland. These endeavours came to an end in 1949, but his connection with the Highlands and its wildlife remained long after, out of which his association with Otters began and culminated in the seminal work, "Ring of Bright Water" that sold 2 million copies in the 1960's and 70's.

This is not a review of the book, whose contents relating to the killing and processing of Basking Sharks I found particularly unappealing at times. Such content must necessarily now be viewed from a perspective sixty years on and the fact that, following such times, attitudes to wildlife have since changed dramatically, not least because of the efforts of Maxwell himself in later years. Within the book there is much that can be judged extremely useful if comparisons are made to current times and the status of Basking Sharks.

When first I came to Islay in the late 1990's sightings of Basking Sharks were extremely rare. Last year (2010) was perhaps the best in recent yeras and similar experiences arose from places like Tiree and Coll too. Local feedback suggests they were seen reguarly a few decades ago, particularly off SW Islay. Whether their population then declined in the final few decades of the last millenium, or that they were simply elsewhere, who knows, but certainly 2010 saw their regular appearance around Islay and Jura and the sightings being commented on by many. Now, 2011 appears to be a somewhat fallow year again. Various people have commented on the absence of records from previously favoured haunts, so we are left with a bit of a mystery. Doubtless someone will pop up now and announce they saw individuals on particular dates but, generally speaking, I think it can be taken as being a quiet year!

Acknowledgement must be given to the photographer, R.Pickering , and to Morvern Summers ( Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust ) for permission to use this image.

Up to around 2008 only single specimens were recorded locally, but then instances of two , and even three together, were reported. In 2010 up to six were seen together and more reports than ever arose. Maxwell mentions a shoal of 80+ and relates how such might roam over many miles of sea. Of interest are his comments relating to the seasons of occurrence and regularity. They never started seeking them out until the last week in April and ended their catching season in mid-September, both dates close to the limits of occurrences arising here.

That this huge leviathan of the oceans has brought enjoyment to many is in no doubt. That they will ever again be viewed as a pest by virtue of their breaking through herring nets is also in doubt given new sensitivities directed towards wildlife and the relative demise of herring stocks too!! That Maxwell saw commercial and economic opportunities in their slaughter is without question. That he also debated with himself the question of pain associated with such activities is provided in an exposition of what pain can encompass, is revealing of the man who later became a leading conservationist.

All in all a fascinating read and a book raising many of the self same questions that we often pose about the species today. On this basis I would urge that you access the web site of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust ( ) to glean up to date information about this species and its presence in Scottish waters. Various trips offshore are now arranged in west Scotland to allow sightings of a variety of marine wildlife and an endless array of excellent photographs are available on many cetacean species and other animals on the website.. May I again express my thanks to Morvern Summers ( HWDT ) for the assistance given and urge everyone who might have records of Basking Sharks and cetaceans to submit them via the website ( but look at it anyway!!).

Finally, may I offer my thanks to Ian Turner ( Librarian, Islay ) who initially brought my attention to the book , provided comment on occurrences in past years and who has been responsible for the reportage of many of the records from SW Islay, often from the close vantage point of his own fishing boat!!

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