NATURE Basking Sharks thriving in Irish waters

Outdoor Living
Basking Shark in Irish waters

Year of the shark

Marine Life
John Paul Tiernan

This year, 2010, is truly the year of the Basking Shark. Back in April we mentioned how it was looking good; media exposure and renewed public interest meant their numbers were on the up, both in the sea and on our TV and laptop screens.
And it seems very much the numbers game at times – with reports last weekend of 100 taggings off Donegal, and unprecedented sightings of groups of six, seven and eight at a time in Cork and almost daily sightings from Achill.
There, in Achill, on a sea barely rippled by the breeze of the first sun-drenched weekend of the year, we forgot about records and statistics and settled for the unforgettable intimacy of one Liabhán Mór. 
Basking Sharks never grew to fear the small boats and curraghs of Achill much to their detriment once upon a time, and so it was easy to slip into the water, camera in hand, when one presented itself at our bow outside Dooagh.

The shaky footage (above) is enjoying a good afterlife on YouTube. Log on and see a monster emerge slowly out of the dark water, and feel the effortless thrust of an almighty and improbably huge tailfin sideswipe the screen as a graceful giant turns away from the camera and swims back to the deep.
The curragh which ferried us home full of talk of the shark and animated speculations to its size (10 to 12 foot? 12 to 15?) was originally destined that afternoon for mackerel. It didn’t take long to complete that task, the first line that went down outside Keem brought up enough for that evening’s indulgence. 
Mackerel are advocated by nutritionists for their oil which is rich in Omega-3 acids, preventers of two of the West of Ireland’s biggest scourges: heart disease and colon cancer. Locals, however, don’t get too excited by these early-season mackerel. They know that fish caught later in the summer and early autumn are oilier and besides the health benefits, better received taste-wise on the pan or the barbecue.
The science behind this is fairly simple: A winter of reduced feeding, the energy associated with moving to spawning grounds and the act of spawning itself deplete their oil reserves, and it is not until June when feeding on crustaceans and juvenile fish resumes around the bays and headlands of Mayo that oil content is restored.
Early season and oil-less they might have been, but they tasted good, raw and dipped in soy sauce ‘sashimi’ style, when comparing shark stories later on that evening.

John Paul Tiernan, Louisburgh, runs, a website dedicated to the creation of knowledge of our marine ecosystems. He is currently studying for an MSc in Marine Science.