Swimming with the basking sharks

Damien Enright on the slow giants seen off our coasts

MESSAGES left on my answering machine in West Cork told me friends have been swimming with massive basking sharks off my local shores.

William Helps, a keen naturalist and talented wildlife artist (see www.williamhelps.com) phoned to ask me to join him amongst the sharks in Rosscarbery Bay. I might have done so had I not been here in the mountains of southern Spain, swimming with ants, bugs and a dead shrew in our small swimming pool.

On a single evening, 18 baskers were seen feeding between Rosscarbery Pier and Galley Head, hoovering up the broad stripes of red plankton that lay as distinct as stripes on a footballer’s jersey across the ocean. Reports say there were possibly a thousand sharks feeding off the coasts of Cork, Kerry and Clare.

On family holidays to Tramore in the 1950s, my father often drove us to The Metal Man in the evening to see the baskers drifting in the bay. The size of a double-decker bus, they were not hard to see. Evening is best: their prey, zooplankon, try to avoid being eaten by staying at great depths during the day and coming to the surface to feed in the darkness.

Harmless to humans, this creature, readily available for viewing from our native shores, is the world’s second largest fish. It zig-zags through the plankton fields at less than 2 miles per hour, its huge maw hourly ingesting 2,000 tons of water, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool. This is filtered through huge gill rakers, leaving tons of plankton behind.

Populations in the north-east Atlantic were decimated in the past century by over-hunting and their numbers are now only a fraction of what they used to be. Ireland twice had the indecent distinction of almost putting paid to these populations altogether.

The largest basking shark fishery in the world was on Achill Island, processing up to 1,800 sharks per year. Having cleaned out the seas, it closed at the end of the 19th century, reopened again in the early 1940 when population levels recovered but shut for good, due to the scarcity of sharks, in 1975.

Nowadays, the Asian appetite for shark’s fin soup targets the species — a fin can be as big as a tabletop, and fetch €five hundred a kilo, while the Norwegians, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese still hunt it.

Unfortunately, basking sharks are slow breeders. The females bear a small number of two metre long young after a two-year pregnancy. While basking is their usual leisurely behaviour, sometimes, they breach, like whales, leaping high out of the water. A fish big as a double-decker bus in mid-air must be quite a sight! Meanwhile, last Sunday, here in Spain, we made a nine mile there-and-back hike out of Trevélez, the highest village in Spain.

We walked alongside water meadows where big cattle grazed, placid bulls amongst them, not the fierce, long-horned fighting bulls of the Andalucian plains, but fat, seeming contented, puddings-of-bulls, peacefully following their cows nose to tail.

As we walked, the sound of water rushing down from the melting snowfields filled our ears. Water was everywhere, the Rio Trevélez rushing headlong to the plains, with streams forded by stepping stones dashing across the paths to join it. It was a celebration of water, a symphony of water, a world so noisy with water that I felt like screaming, “My God, I can stand the heat but will that damn water never stop?!” It seems that the mass protests of the Alpujarra villagers (reported in this column on February 12) have, at least temporarily, postponed the latest huge dams planned to capture their beloved river and issue it, via pipes, to the Costa Tropical, there to green golf courses and fill swimming pools for holidaymakers. People went to jail to stop this.

As I said, the watercourses descending from the snow peaks of the Sierra Nevada are the arteries and veins of the Alpujarra and without them the region will die.

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