BBC Foyle’s marine correspondent Mark Patterson took a few hours out of his busy schedule to record an interview with the largest fish in the Atlantic Ocean, the Basking Shark.
Before boarding the Inishowen basking shark project’s vessel ‘Seashell’ Mark began recording his programme by capturing the soul of Irelands most northerly community, the mixed sounds of young and old enjoying the water on a busy evening at Port Mor, Malin head. A wry smile crosses his lips as his handheld Dictaphone records the screams of delight as children dive off the pier end. Talk of hooks, lines and of course the weather is coupled with the gurgling motors of a few small fishing vessels and Jet Ski’s. By chance a young boy no more than 7 years old kayaks up to ’Seashell’. With no inhibitions, young Mr Tar paddles a circle around the vessel, he knows more about the RIB’s Yamaha engine and outboard unit than most qualified marine engineers. It doesn’t take much time to realise its not flash cars than make a splash up at the top, its boats, boats and anything that floats. Welcome to Malin head on a sunny summers day.
Soon the shark research team leave behind the sounds of the community and head out past saddle rock to the low wine of the RIB’s engine. Their destination is Inishtrahull sound, a deep oceanic trench lying 3 miles north of Malin head. This part of Irelands coastline is rugged and has a reputation for rough sea’s and massive tides. It’s hard to imagine that today as the glorious sunshine and calm seas of the early morning give way to a light breeze and strong tides. “Light variable winds, good sunshine and strong tides to match, perfect shark surfacing conditions”, stated Emmett Johnston who’s heading up the Inishowen based project.
Mark explains to the research team that the programme will be part of a series focusing on peoples connections with the sea along the north coast. He already knows about the basking shark project having followed it on the web for the past few years. This time though he’s here to see it all unfold in the flesh. Today’s task for the team is to find a basking shark and gather as much information about that individual animal as possible. The team who already spent 10 hours that day sampling plankton, have a number of techniques they use for studying the sharks. These include attaching various types of tags, sliming for DNA as well as photo and underwater video recording.
The leviathan like sharks use Malin head as a focal point for their seasonal migration explains Emmett and we attach coloured and numbered tags to them in order to trace their movements when they have left Irish waters. This year thanks to support from the locally based Inishowen Development Partnership the project developed a number of new high tech tags with Queens University Belfast. ”These new tags are the real deal; they are on the limit of what technology can offer us in the 21st century. When we get these back we’ll be able to build up a 3D picture of the shark’s movements underwater and surfacing habits”, say Donal Griffin a research student with the project, its all about trying to understand what drives them up to ’Bask’ and how can we link that to possible sustainable tourism activities he adds.
“On the Bow, there, there, 50 yards out” shouts Mark with boy like excitement, he spots a shark just south of Inishtrahull Island and the team scramble to prepare the yellow tag for deployment. “ easy, easy.. go ..go.. go”, Emmett calls to the helm as they approach the shark from an acute angle. With tag raised high on the Harpoon pole, Neutral, he shouts as the tag goes in and the shark dives with about as much annoyance as a bee sting. The team shake hands; that’s ‘Marko’ away they say having named the shark with White 456 tag deployed on its side. Mark smiles, his enthusiasm washes over the boat, “wow, wow man, that was crazy” he stutters out eyes wide. The other members of the team are busy recording the important data and features of the shark. A well oiled machine they are now so accustomed to the spectacle they don’t even grin, well just a little and you can’t blame them, White 456 or ‘Marko’ is tag number 57 for the 2011 season, an impressive tally by any accounts.
Looking back towards the mainland a thin low lying cloud obscures the top of the dramatic vegetated cliffs, Imagine Jurassic park and your getting close. This is Irelands most northerly coastline, remote, rugged and the salty fresh air is filled with adventure. Add in 6-8m shark’s which occasionally breach and you have a location to match anywhere in the world. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else, doing anything else, this is as good as it gets” states Emmett as they discuss the projects aims for the future.
The Inishowen basking shark study group are part of the Irish Basking shark Project who conduct research on the basking shark in order to promote their conservation and protection in Irish and Atlantic waters. To find out more log onto www.baskingshark.ie