Shark Spotting in the Scottish Hebrides

As Scotland heads into summer, the first basking sharks of the 2014 season have been spotted off the coast of the Scottish Hebrides, attracted by the abundance of their staple food, plankton. Visitors to this spectacularly beautiful region of Scotland may want to add a shark spotting excursion to their itinerary, as well as the Coll of the Sharks Festival which is set to take place on 21-26 August on the Isle of Coll. As part of Homecoming Scotland 2014, the festival features a host of marine-themed activities for all ages, including boat trips, scuba diving and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters surrounding the island. On land activities include guided walks along pristine beaches, exploring historical ruins, and spotting wildlife. Moreover, as a Dark Sky island, Coll is the perfect location for enjoying some superb star-gazing.

As the second-largest living fish (the whale shark being the largest), the basking shark measures between 6 and 8 meters in length, with an average weight of 5.2 tons. While their enormous size may appear intimidating, basking sharks are not dangerous to humans as they feed on plankton, as do the whale shark and megamouth shark. They are found in temperate oceans around the world, migrating to where the plankton is. The basking shark has up to a hundred small teeth on the upper and lower jaws, but these are not used for feeding. Instead, as a filter-feeder, the basking shark swims along with its mouth wide open while its gill-rakers catch plankton as it filters through its mouth and over its gills.

In Scotland, basking sharks are protected, but the worldwide population is classified by the IUCN as ‘vulnerable’, primarily due to being hunted as a source of food, including the ‘delicacy’ of sharkfin soup, and for the oil extracted from their livers which is thought to have medicinal properties, although there is no research to back this up. The basking shark’s liver accounts for up to 20 percent of its weight, making it a target by hunters in pursuit of shark liver oil. As surface feeders, basking sharks are also in danger of being injured by watercraft and getting caught up in fishing nets.

Operating from Oban, Basking Shark Scotland undertakes to follow a code of practice that focuses on the welfare and protection of basking sharks, ensuring that eco-conscious nature lovers can safely view these enormous marine mammals up close without causing them distress.