Coming face-to-face with a basking shark is a heart-stopping moment. Looming out of the murky water with its mouth wide open, the second-largest fish in the sea could swallow you whole – if it wanted to! Fortunately, you’re not on the menu for these gentle giants. Living off zooplankton (tiny fish, crustaceans, eggs and larvae) that drifts in the current, basking sharks are filter feeders and completely harmless to humans. And did you know that you can see basking sharks right here in the UK?
Where to see basking sharks in the UK? Cornwall is a great spot. Photo: Getty
Reaching a colossal 10m in length and six tonnes in weight, everything about these Red-Listed creatures is impressive.
Thought to live for up to 50 years, female sharks are ready to breed around the age of 20. Gestation lasts two to three years and they give birth to live young that are already over a metre long. Yet surprisingly, for such huge creatures, much of their lifecycle remains a mystery.
Why do basking sharks come to the UK?
The sharks appear off the coast of Cornwall in May to feed on the nutrient-rich waters flowing in from the Atlantic. They then spend the summer months migrating north to the Hebrides, before disappearing in October. Little is known about where they go in winter. However, satellite tracking has shown they can travel long distances, with one tagged individual making it as far as Newfoundland.
Basking sharks come to the UK on migration, feeding before heading further north. Photo: Getty
Where are the best places to see basking sharks in the UK?
Like so much marine life in the UK, you can never tell when or where they will turn up. But if you’re lucky enough to get a glimpse of their 2m dorsal fins slicing through the water, it’s an incredible privilege. While they can sometimes be seen from cliffs, your best chance of spotting them is to take a boat trip with a reputable wildlife watching company. Check out these six UK hot spots:
1. Cornish coast. The far western tip of Cornwall, including Sennen, Land's End and Porthcurno, is a great place to shark-watch from the shore. If the UK’s biggest fish remains elusive, gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags, razorbills, grey seals and dolphins are regular visitors, too.
2. Ramsey Island, Pembrokeshire. A kilometre off the coast of St David’s, basking sharks have been spotted near this dramatic isle. Take a guided boat tour or visit the RSPB reserve where you might see fulmars, peregrine falcons and large flocks of chough.
3. South Stack Cliffs, Anglesey. The cliffs of this RSPB reserve provide nest sites for up to 9,000 seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwake and fulmars. Borrow some binoculars from Ellin’s Tower and scan the sea for migrating giants.
4. Isle of Man. Plankton blooms around the Manx coast make this one of the best places to spot baskers. It’s thought the sharks gather to breed here in summer when shoals can be seen basking off the southwest shore.
5. Coll, Hebrides. Known for its glorious beaches and huge sand dunes, the Scottish island of Coll is remote but worth the effort. Basking sharks are often spotted around the shoreline, as well as otters, corncrakes, razorbills, guillemots and puffins.
6. Balranald, Hebrides. This stunning RSPB reserve on the isle of North Uist is a haven for wildlife such as terns, lapwings, redshanks and white eagles. Turn towards the sea and you might spot pods of porpoises or basking sharks skimming the surface for food.
Have you seen a basking shark this summer? Let us know by email, or log your sighting at the Shark Trust's Basking Shark Project.
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