Divers in Ireland had an incredible experience recently.
An unexpected encounter with over 30 basking sharks while underwater.
Michael Early and Patrick McElroy were diving at Arranmore Island, off the coast of County Donegal when 14 minutes into the dive, seven basking sharks swam past. As if that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, 15 minutes later at least 30 of the sharks cruised overhead.
Despite being the second largest fish in the oceans, with an average size of 6-8 metres, basking sharks are an endangered species – so the divers knew how rare and special their sighting was.
“It was unbelievable” said Michael Early, originally from Arranmore, but now living in the nearby town of Burtonport. “I was recording a video of a ledge full of crayfish when my buddy Patrick starting going crazy underwater to get my attention, flashing his torch. I looked up and saw seven go past. We tried to follow them for a bit, but they just swam off.”
“We were on a high after that, and went back to filming other wildlife. Then about 15 minutes later Patrick’s torch started going crazy again as more sharks appeared. But this time they kept appearing…he lost count at 33! We managed to record part of it so hopefully others will get to enjoy it in some small way like we did.”
Another unusual aspect of the encounter was the sharks’ behaviour. Basking sharks are usually sighted close to the surface, swimming along with their huge mouths wide open as they feed on plankton – very little is known about their behaviour while deeper underwater.
In this instance, they were about 20m underwater, swimming almost in a train with their mouths closed. The divers’ coxswain, Oscar Duffy, did not see the sharks at all, even though he was following the divers’ bubbles.
“It looks like the divers witnessed what we generally consider to be courtship behaviour,” said Dr Simon Berrow, of the Irish Basking Shark Group ”We have documented this rare behaviour on the surface in waters off County Clare and County Donegal this summer. However, we have not been lucky enough to witness it underwater the same way these divers did.”
“In fact, we don’t know if anyone else has ever witnessed this behaviour underwater on a fun dive!”
Mr Early and Mr McElroy have been diving in the area extensively since 2005, with thousands of dives in that vicinity. However, the site where they saw the basking sharks is a relatively new one.
“We first dived that site in June, after being asked by a fisherman friend to free some tangled lobster pots. We noticed an incredible range of wildlife while there, and were eager to go back.”
Mr Early enthused about the biodiversity of his home grounds, “I’ve also been diving in the Mediterranean, but it didn’t compare to what we see while diving in our own backyard – the reefs are beautiful and full of life with lots of crayfish, lobsters, crabs, anemones, dolphins, inquisitive seals and a variety of colourful wrasse – a friend has even had a porbeagle shark cruise past on a safety stop! There’s also a site that we go to in the hope of encountering sunfish.”
“However, that recent dive with the basking sharks was beyond compare. Needless to say we came up after the dive pretty excited, Oscar was a bit concerned about us until we told him what had happened. I don’t think he would have believed us if we didn’t have the video to prove it!”
Dr Berrow agreed, “The video footage is incredible, as is the diver’s account of the dive. This is an important late season sighting – we would like to thank the diver for the information, and to encourage other people to submit basking shark sightings to the Irish Basking Sharks Group”
“Simple information such as the date, time and location of the sighting contribute greatly to research and conservation efforts for basking sharks in Ireland.”
As for Mr Early and Mr McElroy, they are hoping for a repeat sighting – this time with their regular dive buddy who missed that eventful dive.
Article Written by Catherine McCann
Video Credit: Michael Early
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