Basking in Glory

Sunday afternoon, and conditions were appalling.

Doors blew open, windows jolted and George glared at me from under the table.

He is not fond of “using the facilities” during inclement weather. Mysteriously though, he overcame these precious tendencies once a chance to raid the Coffee Shop bins presented itself.

George was in mighty hot water when I discovered half a bread roll hanging guiltily from his mouth.

As far as the wildlife was concerned, it wasn’t much of a day. An occasional Raven swooshed over the velux – looking for all the world like it was being sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner. Smaller birds wobbled about on the bird table, reluctant to let go lest they be swept away too. They had adopted a bracing moonwalk gait, which was quite amusing to watch as they jockeyed for space near the buggy nibbles.

It was with some surprise that I watched Alex gather up his fishing gear and head out to Sorne Point on the quad. Usually, I’m all enthusiasm when it comes to fishing, but on this occasion I found myself strangely busy elsewhere…

Ten minutes later, he re-appeared dripping wet in the porch. A magnanimous smile was just parting my lips when he said:

“Basking Sharks”

The effect was immediate and electric. I threw down my computer, lunged for my camera, and bolted for the door.

Trees shuddered under the force of the wind; their upturned leaves silvery with moisture and clinging to the boughs like fish to a wreck.

Rain pelted my face and stung my eyes as we tore down to the cliffs. Long grasses squalled around the bike, echoing the mood of the distant sea.

We stopped, breathless, and watched.

The first fin slid out of the inky swell like an upturned knife through butter. An improbable distance away, a smaller more triangular fin also broke the surface. This was the tip of the tail.

My wellies skittered alarmingly on the wet rocks as we scrambled down to shore. The gusts were so strong, I was physically struggling to stand. Breakers battered the cliff-base, and each smoked like a bonfire as fine spray was blasted from its crest.

The thing that surprised me most about the sharks was their speed. The wind was blowing from the land to the sea, pushing them away from the coast. The waves were nothing short of enormous, and boats were conspicuous by their absence. Yet, they motored though the swell as if it was a trifling thing. Not even an inconvenience.

For those who live on Mull – or who visit during the summer – you might feel a bit sorry for me here. This is the first time I have ever seen a Basking Shark, and I’m sure there are people reading this who have been fortunate enough to see them under calm conditions, or even close-up from a boat.

When I saw the sharks, the weather was violent. The sea was a grasping, angry thing – roiling vengefully under a frowning sky.

It made them magnificent.

Imagination filled in the gaps: cavernous ribcage mouth, yawning like white bone from gloomy water. Clouded midnight eyes and dark, supple flanks. Bunched muscles at the base of the tail, powering a half-moon scythe of caudal fin. When the thin light struck the water at just the right angle, I could see the hulking shadow of the shark below the surface.

There were at least four individuals, but possibly more. One in particular was larger than the others, and its dorsal fin bowed under the weight of wind and water when it turned. The fact that we could see them at all given the severity of the weather bore testament to their colossal size.

Basking sharks are second only to the aptly named Whale Shark. They have been known to grow to lengths of over 11m and weigh in at 7 tonnes, though large animals like this are not often recorded now. The majority of sharks seen today do not exceed 9m. This lack of larger specimens is thought to result from hunting pressure. Basking Sharks enjoy full legal protection in the UK, but are sadly still vulnerable to the trade in shark fins elsewhere in the world.

However, shark fishing in Scotland was only outlawed as recently as 1994. Staggering.

The sharks were primarily [but not exclusively] hunted for their enormous liver, which can account for up to a quarter of their body weight. The liver is full of squaline-rich oil, and is thought to help the shark manage its buoyancy in the water column. The shark’s digestive tract extracts this oil from the plankton in their diet, though precisely how this is done remains unclear. A single liver can provide up to 400 gallons of fluid.

Shark oil commanded a high price up until the 1970’s because of its commercial uses as a fuel, an industrial lubricant and later as an ingredient in cosmetics, perfumes and silks. By the 1990’s the price had halved due to the availability of better synthetic substitutes. For all you Otter fans out there, our good friend Mr. Gavin Maxwell [he of “Ring of Bright Water” fame] was a Basking Shark fisherman in the Hebrides, so despite all his Mij this-and-that, he didn’t exactly have a spotless record.

Quite sobering to think that the cheap make-up I enthusiastically daubed on as a little girl probably contained essence of Basking Shark. Worse still to imagine them having their livers cut out at sea, their remains cast adrift, as I flounced about in a lurid pair of pink star-shaped sunglasses and tie-dye frock [timeless look].

To my untrained eye, the sharks appeared to be feeding for the most part. However, there were fairly frequent interactions. At times, two sharks would either swim parallel to one another, or would appear to follow in procession. Often, a period of interaction would last a couple of minutes and be followed by both animals submerging for a short time.

The speed with which they moved seemed to vary: individuals cruising at the surface maintained a steady – but fairly quick – course up and down past Sorne Point. When two sharks were interacting, they seemed first to slow, and then either keep a steady bearing together or circle excitedly. This behaviour does seem more like courtship, but it was difficult to gauge just how close to one another the animals actually were [apparently, courtship is usually done at very close quarters].

For more information about the amazing basking shark tagging project see:

I feel extremely fortunate to have seen Mull’s Basking Sharks in all their stormy glory. They looked fantastic out there in the turbid water – just like sharks should be.

The sight of those fins cruising through the splintering waves with such effortless grace is something that I won’t forget.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward