The west coast of Scotland is renowned for basking shark encounters, but Mike Clark ventured out in search of a different species – the spurdog.
Imagine going on a shark dive in the UK. You may automatically think of blue sharks off the South Coast of England. Or perhaps the big basking sharks of West Scotland. It’s the basking sharks that Shane Wasik, owner of Basking Shark Scotland, and Dive Oban and Argyll, is an expert on. He has been taking customers out for years to swim with these massive sharks.
However, the season when the giants are around is short, and Shane – who is always enthusiastic and keen to become involved in exciting new ventures – has done just that and come up with an entirely new shark dive for the UK market.
When Shane contacted me and asked me to come up for a shark dive, I initially thought it would be with the basking sharks, but this was not the case – we would be diving with the smaller but spectacular spurdog, also known as the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias).
The interest in the spurdog was piqued in Shane after sightings while running dive trips to the Falls of Lora under the Connel Bridge, which is found at the mouth of Loch Etive, near Oban, Scotland. The site has always been associated with the odd shark encounter, mainly tope, spurdog and small catsharks (lesser spotted dogfish in old money).
Old dive and angling guides also reported spurdog here. At Dunstaffnage, The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) have been conducting a survey of the movements of the spurdog in Loch Etive. Shane was keen to see if he could validate the data generated by this research and see if he could dive with these sharks.
So off we set on a fine sunny day out of Dunstaffnage Marina and made the short journey to Loch Etive. On the way we passed under the Connel Bridge, passing through the Falls of Lora. Thankfully it was neap tides and not far off slack water, so the journey through this powerful tidal race was easy and I focused on taking in all the sights and enjoying the spectacular costal scenery.
Arriving at dive site one, the conditions looked good, with Shane able to see the anchor drop all the way down to the 10m-deep seabed. Next up was placing the bait bag into the water to attract the sharks. We left this for around one hour and in that time, Shane told us about the spurdog and the research undertaken by SAMS.
This suggested that the spurdog inhabited the inner loch in the winter months. The site may be a nursery breeding ground. But in the summer months, the larger sharks move out of the loch through the Falls of Lora and inhabit the reefs further offshore, before returning to the loch over winter. It was all good stuff and the hour passed quickly.
It was soon time for my first dedicated shark dive. Cameras ready, dive kit on, we descended 10m down onto the seafloor and took up position in an unexpected but manageable tidal flow. All we needed now was the sharks to be there – and they were not. So, armed with a wide-angle lens on the camera,
I started looking around the seafloor. It was clean sand punctuated by clumps of soft corals and sea squirts. I soon started to find edible and spider crabs, flatfish, butterfish and sandeels. There was loads of life down here and all of it was shark food. Thirty minutes into the dive, excited torch beams flashed over to my left and I headed in that direction.
A diver had found a small thornback ray, Finally I had a subject suitable for my wide-angle lens. The ray didn’t settle but it cruised around unconcerned, hunting for its lunch. Not the action we were after, but exciting none the less – and rays being flattened sharks, the thornback is a relative of the spurdog.
Back onboard the boat we de-kitted. Shane vocalised comment 101 from the skipper’s book of greatest quotes and stated ‘if only you were here last time, it was pure crazy with sharks’. Needless to say, the shark no-show was a disappointment for me but unknowingly, perhaps we had verified some of the SAMS data. Had the spurdog already started their migration out of the loch? We would find out on dive two and I hoped that the time lost to full diaries and agreeing a suitable date to complete the shark dive was now not too late in the season to see them.
Assuming that the migration had started, we headed back out of the loch and past the Falls of Lora, again thankfully the tidal race was benign. We headed to a suitable spot for dive two. The bait bag was placed in again and we polished off our lunch and had a coffee. Hopefully the sharks were homing in on their lunch as well 10m below our feet.
An hour later we descended. Strangely, vis here was worse, around five metres at best. The good news as I descended was that I was greeted with a two-fingered gesture and an open flat hand to my buddy’s head. He had seen two sharks and I soon got my first glimpse of a spurdog. Lying on the seafloor, this shark was just over one metre long.
It was covered in sand and silt and had a decorator spider crab crawling over its back. I took the chance to look closely at the shark and take in the underslung jaw that does contain some serious teeth, the big eyes, five gill slits and the two dorsal fins, each with a large defensive spine. The spurdog is, in fact, one of the UK’s few venomous fish, so it’s best to respect these spines. The tail is large and powerful and I was hoping to see this shark using it for some free-swimming action.
It was happy to sit relaxing until a velvet swimming crab came along and started nipping it. I could see the shark flinching and then it was off. I decided to have a fin around and see if I could find another one. In the weed in front of me, I saw something move and it was another thornback ray, a larger one this time.
It sat still and we watched each other for a bit and then the ray gently glided away. I headed down the reef away from the silt and weed, the vis improved slightly and a coarse sand and boulder slope started to descend gently down.
It was on my ascent back up the reef that I found spurdog number two relaxing on a clean patch of golden sand. Once again, this individual was just over a metre long and did not look to be in a rush to move anywhere. I took a look at my contents gauge and realised I was nearing 50 bar – it was time to head back to the boat.
On returning to the shot I experienced skippers quote 101 for myself and saw shark craziness. One shark was finning away chomping down on a mackerel tail. Two other sharks were swimming around and a thornback ray was finning up the scent trail. While I had been 15 metres away photographing the sedentary shark, I had been missing some really good shark action around the bait bag! I was now under 50 bar and approaching 30 bar – safety trumps all and my time was well and truly up.
As I ascended I saw a spurdog go into the bait bag, bite on and give it a good thrash about. This was great ‘peak of the action’ stuff. I got back up to the boat and explained to Shane that it was all kicking off down there now. Shane provided me with a tank change that a Red Bull F1 pit team would have been proud of, and I was back down the line into the action.
I experienced a couple of nice passes and then the sharks cruised away, probably with full bellies. Wow! I had almost missed it but I did get to see a bit of the action – to see the sharks finning around looking for lunch was magic! Shane will soon be busy with basking shark tours, but after that season closes in the late-autumn, Shane will be running some further dedicated spurdog shark dives. If you are interested in this, give Shane a call on 07975 723140 and note your interest – I’m sure spurdog shark dives will soon be up there with the blues and the baskers as ‘must do’ UK shark dives.
While I had been 15 metres away photographing the sedentary shark, I had been missing some really good shark action around the bait bag!
Shane provided me with a tank change that a Red Bull F1 pit team would have been proud of, and I was back down the line into the action.
Photographs by Mike Clark