Tomorrow marine biologists start tracking sharks basking around Tiree, Coll and Hyskeir

An exciting project which scientists hope will reveal the secret life of large sharks visiting Scottish waters will begin in Hebridean seas tomorrow – Friday 13th July.

Marine biologists from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the University of Exeter will attach satellite tracking tags to 20 basking sharks in the seas around the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Once fitted, the tags will allow people to track the movements of the sharks on the SNH website in close-to-real time. (We give the link to this facility below.)

The tags will provide information on the location and behaviour of the sharks during the summer when they can be seen feeding in large numbers at the surface. They will also track the sharks for several months afterwards, helping scientists understand if the sharks travel to deeper water around Scotland and further afield over the winter.

The tagging work will take place in the waters around Coll and Tiree and the small island of Hyskeir (with its landmark lighthouse) near Canna.

Research has shown these areas are hotspots for basking sharks, with consistently large numbers sighted there during the summer months.

Even though basking sharks are seen in many places round Scotland, displays of social and courtship behaviour, such as breaching and following each other nose-to-tail, have only been observed in these areas, suggesting they are important for key stages in the life cycle of the sharks.

Dr Suz Henderson from SNH, who is managing the basking shark tagging project says: ‘We’re really lucky to have the world’s second largest fish visit our waters every summer but we know very little about their movements throughout the rest of the year.

‘We want to know how the sharks use the waters between Skye and Mull and how long they remain in the area.

‘We’d also like to find out how important this area is in the life cycle of the sharks, and if some areas are used more than others. The results from this project will help to answer these questions.

‘In addition, an area between Skye and Mull (Ed: which would include the waters around Tiree and Coll) has recently been identified as a place where it might be appropriate to develop a marine protected area (MPA) to protect basking sharks. The tagging work will help determine if an MPA is an appropriate way to safeguard these magnificent animals.’

The tags – attached to the sharks using titanium darts and darting poles – will record information on the movement of the sharks, including depth and water temperature. The tags will be shed by the sharks after several months.

Dr Henderson says: ‘The tags might be washed up on beaches after being released from the sharks and if we are able to retrieve them they will provide us with additional information. We’ll be asking the public to keep an eye open for them and help us recover as many as we can.’

Dr Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter says: ‘Although they have captured the public imagination, we actually know relatively little about how basking sharks live.  This is a fantastic opportunity for us to find out more about the movements and lifestyles of these fascinating creatures.

‘This project will use some of newest animal tracking technology available for marine species that allows us to know where the sharks are with near GPS accuracy. This is a hugely challenging project – not least because we are at the mercy of the weather and sea conditions – but the results will provide invaluable in our quest to uncover the secrets of these giants of the sea and help to protect them.’

The area where the study is being undertaken overlaps with an offshore wind farm proposal west of Tiree, known as the Argyll Array – and, perhaps more widely if less formally, as the Tiree Array.

The tagging project will provide information about the use of this area by the sharks, giving additional confidence to the advice which SNH provides to Marine Scotland as the development goes through the licensing process.

Tracking the basking sharks online after they are tagged – starting tomorrow – go to the SNH website here.

It would be naive to see environmental issues in the driving seat of this welcome exercise. SNH has recently come under fire in its omission from a  report of data on marine and airborne wildlife species that would be affected  by offshore wind and marine energy installations.

Thanks to the vigorous and highly informed No Tiree Array campaign, there is widespread awareness of the massively out of scale proposals of Scottish Power Renewables for this array. The Scottish Government, which has taken to itself the decision taking power on this plan has delayed a decision until 2016.

SNH can be reasonably hammered for their deficiencies, compromises and the erratic or, on occasion, non-existent research base used to support their opinions, but this research initiative and its transparency in making the tracking website openly available, is to be commended.

This is the start of the objective science we need to underpin our thinking and decision taking in on and offshore renewables.

The documented  behaviour of the basking sharks will supply evidence of genuine and objective use in our collective coming to understand the impacts of proposals on offshore renewables.

This is only the beginning, There is a serious volume of research to be done before secure decisions on renewables development can be taken, one way or the other.

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5 Responses to Tomorrow marine biologists start tracking sharks basking around Tiree, Coll and Hyskeir

  1. “This is the start of the objective science we need to underpin our thinking and decision taking in on and offshore renewables”.
    Such a shame that SNH did not get their act together sooner. All (except SNH ?) know that the Basking Shark season…especially in the waters around Tiree and Coll begins in May, and this year there were more than is normally reported. On this basis we would hope that next year and the year after the same procedures will be inplace…in a timely manner of course.
    “The tagging work will help determine if an MPA is an appropriate way to safeguard these magnificent animals” or this can be read as will an MPA go ahead and can it stop the Argyll aka Tiree Array. An inappropriate way to safeguard these endangered animals is obviously to build a power station in there breeding grounds…you do not need a study to see this.

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  2. As I type this I can see at least 5 basking sharks 50-150m off the shore in front of my house on Tiree. I think they are part of the same pod which has been around this particular spot for the last few days. Yesterday I counted 14 basking sharks, and earlier in the morning,I had the most magnificent of sights, a whale’s tail arching through air as it dived.

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  3. On seeing lots of Cyanea capillata on a beach on Arran today (Lion’s Mane Jellyfish) I suggested to my elder daughter that it was probably the time of year for “plague of jellyfish” stories in the press. Every year, without fail there are stories about jellyfish swarms as being remarkable despite their annual recurrence.

    Basking sharks are no different I see (and who can resist a story about these huge elasmobranchs). I remember as an undergraduate in the late 70′s/early 80′s watching some fairly hair raising film of shark tagging by the team from Millport Marine Station led by the then Dr Geoff Moore (now, and rightly so, Prof – a man who has always looked like the Larson rendition of God). This early satellite tagging showed that the sharks returned to warmer (and deeper) waters in the winter off Spain (from memory) where they were thought to breed.

    Good stories from these studies included the American satellite trackers reporting a shark moving at 70 mph up the middle of the UK (a tag had been found by a fisherman and was being returned in a lorry) and the interesting theory that basking shark numbers had never recovered from the WW2 habit of RAF pilots shooting them up for anti-submarine practise (though the Donegal and Gavin Maxwell fisheries probably didn’t do the populations much good either).

    Sadly, despite perfect conditions this week, I didn’t see any while I was on Arran as I’m sure my two daughters would have experienced the same thrill I did when I saw my first Basking Shark in Carradale Harbour sometime in the 1960′s.

    Hopefully the current SNH study will further our knowledge of these magnificent giants.

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