WILDLIFE: IS THE GREAT WHITE SHARK IN CORNWALL?
PUBLISHED: 14:09 24 August 2015 | UPDATED: 13:01 30 August 2017
When it comes to the Great White Shark the lines between fact and fiction are more blurred than in the case of Falmouth’s pet mystery, the legendary Mawgawr
As many of us head out to the open ocean to enjoy the delights of the Atlantic this summer, life-long sailor JACQUES SKENTLEBURY will be on the look out for its most misunderstood predatory inhabitant near Cornwall’s shores.
Tall tales from the sea have existed since man first paddled a coracle. Take Cornwall for example – here we have the legend of Mawgawr. Supposedly this elusive beast is some pre-historic plesiosaur which haunts the waters around Falmouth.
There is something about the ocean which spawns myths and mysteries – perhaps it is the fact that we rarely get more than a glimpse or two of a creature before it slips beneath the waves. Maybe that is also the reason that most summers Cornwall finds itself the subject of lurid tabloid headlines; the word JAWS usually accompanied by a grainy photo of a menacing -looking fin.
When it comes to the Great White Shark the lines between fact and fiction are more blurred than in the case of Falmouth’s pet mystery, the legendary Mawgawr.
It’s no surprise that the ocean’s most infamous apex predator captures the imaginations of the public along with the headline writers. If you believe what you read in the red tops, this is a shark with a taste for human blood and proportions which would make Steven Spielberg blush, stalking the waters just yards from the UK’s most popular beaches.
But, at the risk of letting the truth get in the way of a good story, I wondered what the likelihood really is of a Great White swimming off our shores.
While the annual summer shark scare is as predictable as traffic jams on the A30, so is the voice of reason which usually puts the story into context - cases of mistaken identity, porpoises and basking sharks being taken for Great Whites.
So what is there to believe? First of all, let’s dispel the scaremongering. There have only been two unprovoked shark attacks in British waters since 1847, neither of which proved fatal. So even though our seas are frequented by around thirty species of sharks, from Makos to Threshers (the biggest of which ever caught was off Cornwall), let’s not all jump out of the sea at once. After all we with so few attacks and such a wonderful plethora of sharks that make up Cornwall’s and the rest of the UK’s marine wildlife we should feel privileged not threatened. But of these species, could there be a Great White?
Richard Peirce is the author of Sharks in British Seas and chairman of The Shark Trust. He spoke to me as an individual who has studied sharks for decades rather than as a spokesman for the trust.
There’s a real mystery,’ he says. It’s not whether we get Great Whites in British waters, because most of us think that we get the occasional one rocks by once every two or three years. The real mystery is why we haven’t got a Great White population here because just about everything about waters on the western side of the British Isles is ideal for them.’
Over the past twenty years, I’ve looked at and had reported to me more than a hundred potential and claimed great white encounters in British waters. Out of that hundred maybe six or seven remain credible. They tend to be concentrated down the western side of the British Isles and they tend to be concentrated in two clusters one off the western side of Scotland and one off Cornwall. I can’t say that is seven Great White Shark sightings, what I can say is that they’ve remained credible after I’ve investigated them.”
So perhaps the idea of Great Whites around Cornwall is not so implausible, even ignoring the mystery of a lack of a permanent population here.
For a start this is a creature which can cope with varying water temperatures as it has what is called a Rete Mirable system, allowing it to maintain its own internal temperature. That gives it a greater migratory range which could easily encompass Cornwall.
When it comes to food, there is a reasonable seal population here in Cornwall, so it would be little surprise that, in the words of Peirce, “the occasional one rocks by”.
Unfortunately, the Great White Shark is believed to be heavily depleted in the north Atlantic due to overfishing, while this is disputed among some experts, it would be of little surprise considering the near total lack of limitations regulating the catch of sharks and the sale of shark products. Programs like No Limits No Future organised by the Shark Trust aim to see a more responsible approach taken to shark fishing (for more information visit ).
And while currently many think we receive the occasional Great White visitor to the shores of Cornwall, perhaps if we don’t all change our attitudes to these animals and the methods employed to fish them, we won’t be lucky enough to count them among the marine visitors of Cornwall for long.
The Smooth Hammerhead Shark (Sphyrna zygaena)
A flagship species for oceanic oddities, the Smooth Hammerhead is a recognisable summer guest to Cornwall. Known from the Ivory Coast to the West Indies this shark may be one of Kernow’s slightly more unexpected tourists but is known to venture in into northern waters during the warmer months before returning south for the winter. Although primarily a solitary animal, during its migratory phases the adults are known to form small groups for the journey whereas the young can be found in much larger schools.
The Blue Shark (Prionace glauca)
One of the more common shark species to frequent the British Isles, the Peau Bleue (as our cousins across the channel have named them) is a slender and relatively benign animal, hunting mostly small fish and squid. The Blue shark is capable of producing litters of between 4-135 pups each of which can measure up to 50cm. It is a popular game for sport anglers and as such has been well documented using tag and release methods.
The Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
Growing up to 12 meters, the Basking Shark is an impressive visitor to the Cornish coast, typically feeding on Plankton this gentle giant poses no aggressive threat to humans. Traditionally hunted for tanning leather and lamp oil, the Basking Shark is a protected species (1998) within the 12 mile limit of British waters. However it is still sought after by the lucrative Asian fin trade. The best time to see these magnificent creatures in Cornwall is from May to October when they feed on the Plankton that becomes abundant near the surface of the water.
This article first appeared in Cornwall Life in August 2015.
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