The wildlife with Monty Halls (and Reuben!): The basking sharks are coming to Dartmouth
22:29 GMT, 20 July 2012
There is a whisper on the wind here in Dartmouth, a rumour of giants approaching us.
They travel through seas that are still grey and flecked with foam, made restless by the memory of recent squalls.
But still they come, driven by a primal urge to feed, following their food along ancient highways created between billowing currents.
Monty Halls is excited by the rumour of the basking sharks coming
Word of their presence spreads like a virus up the coast, with the story of each encounter getting ever closer.
The basking sharks are coming.
For me – for anyone in fact– this is very exciting news indeed. There have been regular sightings as close as Torbay, which is a mere belch of an outboard motor away.
There was even one spotted by the Mew Stone a few days ago, and I can almost see that from my house. What is unequivocal is that beyond the mouth of the river there are great grey shapes in the sea, the second largest fish on planet Earth on my doorstep.
Now all I have to do is find them.
'Its rather like having an elephant under your lawn and all you can see, occasionally, is the tip of its trunk' says Monty
I don’t want to set myself up here, but I’m grimly determined to see one this year. The last couple of years haven’t been good ones for basking shark sightings. This does not mean they are in trouble or numbers have slumped (although shark species around the world are in dire straits due to industrial-scale fishing for shark’s fin soup).
This giant creature is generally only seen when the plankton on which it feeds mass on the surface, and even then to spot one you need a reasonably calm day.
The snag is that you have an animal the size of a bus and yet all you will spot (if you’re lucky) is the tip of the dorsal fin or (if you’re very, very, very lucky) the tip of the nose and the tail. These can be a very long way apart indeed as a large basking shark can be 30ft long.
It’s rather like having an elephant under your lawn and all you can see, occasionally, is the tip of its trunk.
But once you’ve seen your first basking shark, you are doomed to look for them for ever. They are a Class A addictive substance! I saw my first off Porthkerris in Cornwall.
There I was, hopping from foot to foot in the boat, peering around me with wide eyes that swivelled from horizon to shore, and then right in front of me was a monster. It was vast – a slab-sided, slate grey submarine beneath our keel.
All the things I expected to feel, well here’s the strange thing – I didn’t feel any of them. In fact, my main sensation was that of going rather numb. The ancient, primal beast within plainly took one look and decided that – as death was obviously imminent – the best option was to simply shut down my brain, still my breath, and stop my heart.
It just looked all wrong, a mouth the size of a white cave, a fin like a black sail glistening like wet tar, and yet in the background were the gentle coves of Cornwall. It was rather like seeing a T Rex strolling through Dartmouth.
Happily, the marine biologist within soon roused himself, and my senses whirred back into life. We followed the shark for several minutes before it gave a sweep of that sickle-shaped tail and vanished into the gloom.
You see, we know nothing about these
animals. We don’t know how many of them there are – not even vaguely.
Ask a biologist where they breed, and they’ll just look faintly
It left behind only a disturbed patch of water, and a man on a boat with a whole new obsession.
You see, we know nothing about these animals. We don’t know how many of them there are – not even vaguely. Ask a biologist where they breed, and they’ll just look faintly embarrassed.
We’ve only just found out where they go in the winter. This immense creature has been appearing off our shores since time immemorial, and yet it remains an elusive ghost, a grey spectre that haunts our imagination for a few short weeks before slipping away into the echoing immensity of the ocean. To go who knows where To do who knows what
And so every encounter is special, every photograph significant, every observation of their behaviour meaningful.
The basking sharks are here, and as such this afternoon I shall be firing up the engines of the boat and – with the fixed gaze of the truly obsessive – heading out of the harbour to try to meet them.