TAGGING THE BASKERS
As we motor from Tobermory under grey clouds, a freshening breeze causes me to question both my clothing choice and the BBC’s promise of high temperatures and bright skies,’ writes journalist Nic Davies in next month’s issue of Geographical. ‘Rounding Rhu-nan-Gall lighthouse, I’m happy to see a cloud-free strip on the western horizon – our destination.’ Davies felt immensely privileged to be able to join Exeter University’s pioneering basking shark-tagging programme in Scottish waters. First launched in 2012, following a decision that the relatively recent hunting ban offered inadequate protection for basking sharks, the programme aims to improve understanding of the species’ behaviour, and in doing so optimise conservation under the Scottish Government’s project to designate Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Indeed, the team’s efforts were instrumental in the designation of the Sea of the Hebrides MPA in December 2020, a world’s first for establishing basking shark conservation on such a large scale.
Basking sharks are remarkable creatures. The secondlargest shark in the world, mature individuals may reach 12 metres and weigh six tonnes, but they are gentle giants. Sustenance comes in the form of zooplankton sieved through the whales’ array of mucus-covered gill rakers, positioned on either side of a metre-wide mouth, a gape that allows the behemoths to filter an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of water every hour. For a long time it was assumed that the elusive creatures were simply marine wanderers whose movements exhibit little rhyme or reason, but as more data is collected this narrative is being challenged.
Following on from some successful tagging in 2018, the Exeter team finally managed to get back on the water after a Covid-induced lull. But as Davies found out, tagging whale sharks is far from easy, and out on the ocean, things don’t necessarily go to plan.