Donal Hickey: Basking in glory of sharks

From this time of year of onwards, if you see people standing on headlands and peering out to sea through binoculars, it’s probable they’re trying to spot whales, sharks or dolphins. One of the biggest creatures in the ocean, the harmless basking shark, is an annual visitor, writes Donal Hickey.

West Cork and Co Kerry, as well as Co Mayo, Sligo and north Donegal, are among the most likely areas for viewing these sharks between April and early August. In recent weeks, there have been sightings along the South-West.

The peak time runs from mid-May to mid-June. Sometimes, basking sharks venture close to shore as they follow zooplankton into shallow bays and inlets. Calm weather after a lengthy period of sustained sunshine provides ideal conditions for spotting a basking shark.

In relatively flat seas, the dorsal fin can be seen rising from the water as they come up to feed on plankton, production of which is boosted by fine, warm weather.

Keeping an eye on other wildlife can also help locate basking sharks. Gannets eat the same plankton and if these birds are diving it can indicate the presence of sharks. In a recent report, the Irish Wildlife Trust says scientists have listed the basking shark among species threatened with extinction.

While our 1976 Wildlife Act protects many of our native animals it excludes marine fish and invertebrates.

“To date, no such marine creature has been afforded protection, something that is starkly out of step with our European neighbours. This is despite the fact that many marine species occurring in Irish waters are threatened with extinction,’’ says the trust’s Padraic Fogarty.

The new report lists 48 fish species such as sharks and rays, various shellfish and other invertebrate animals, as well as five types of seaweed, as endangered whale and dolphin watching is a growing tourist activity and waters off the southwest are a summer feeding ground for a number of whale species, while being a permanent home for a variety of dolphins as far as the Shannon Estuary.

Earlier this month, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group reported a flurry of activity of humpback whales off the Beara Peninsula. These huge animals can be almost 20m long and can weigh more than 40 tonnes.

They can perform spectacular acrobatics as they break the water’s surface. They are also known for their songs which can be heard during the mating season and which can also be a means of communication for whales long distances apart, some scientists believe.

The humpback has baleen plates, a filter feeding system, instead of teeth and has a varied diet of small fish, krill, salmon and herring. But that is not the complete menu.

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