Basking sharks – the seven-tonne gentle giants now being seen off the UK’s coasts – should not be disturbed by swimmers and holidaymakers, wildlife campaigners warned today.
Britain’s biggest fish has been making regular appearances around the south west and west coasts due to recent increases in sea temperatures.
Now the Marine Conservation Society, which runs the national Basking Shark Watch project, is concerned that some people are getting too close and even harassing the creatures.
The mouth of a 36ft long basking shark can be 6ft wide, but because they feed only on plankton the sharks are generally harmless.
Western coastal sea temperatures have risen at the surface, leading to increases in plankton blooms and an influx of basking sharks.
Since the beginning of June, the MCS has received 25 basking shark sightings from members of the public in the South West, 30 from around the Isle of Man and at least 30 off the west coast of Scotland.
But sadly, as the number of basking shark sightings has increased, so have the number of reports of shark harassment.
Dr Jean Luc Solandt, MCS Biodiversity Projects Officer said “We have received reports of basking sharks being herded towards the shore by boats in the South West and seen photographs of national newspaper journalists and the public getting very close to basking sharks.
“Anyone spotted harassing sharks in this way should be immediately reported to the police.”
Since 1987, MCS Basking Shark Watch has accumulated a database of over eight thousand records of basking sharks from around the UK coast.
And as a result of campaigning by the MCS and other organisations, basking sharks have been protected under UK law since 1998 and it is illegal to kill, injure or recklessly disturb them.
In addition, last year the UK Government, backed by the MCS, successfully listed the basking shark under the Convention on Migratory Species thereby affording it international protection by the signatory states to the CMS.
The MCS has in conjunction with The Shark Trust and other partners produced a Basking Shark Code of Conduct that advises boat users to stay at least 100 metres away from basking sharks, while swimmers should keep a distance of 4 metres from the sharks and be particularly wary of the animal’s enormous tail.
Dr Solandt added: “Through Basking Shark Watch we are beginning to understand the lives of these enigmatic creatures and we encourage the public to send us their shark sightings.
“But people should keep their distance from basking sharks. It is worth remembering that they are wild and unpredictable animals that have a powerful tail and have been known to leap clear of the water.”