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ISSUE 22 ARCHIVE - SHARKIPEDIA

Richard Peirce

There are plus or minus 30 species of sharks in U.K. waters including the world's second largest fish, the Basking shark, and others that will surprise many readers; Shortfin Makos, Smooth Hammerheads, Threshers, Blue sharks, and Greenland sharks.

In 2008, together with Simon Spear, my partner in Elasmo Films, I started work on making a film about the sharks found in U.K. waters. The result was "Sharks in British Seas" which as far as I am aware is still the only film yet made to concentrate exclusively on British sharks, (this film is still available on Shark Conservation Society website at 6.99).

The British weather, the unreliability of our summers and in some cases the relative scarcity of species and the difficulties of filming them, probably explains why no major broadcaster has yet commissioned a film exclusively covering the sharks found in our waters.

I was the pioneer of cage diving with Blue sharks when I started this activity off Cornwall in 2005. I did this with the objectives of demonstrating that sharks can have a far larger value alive than dead, and to provide a new tourism opportunity for Cornwall. It worked and now cage diving operators on both Cornish coasts take enthusiasts out to see these amazing sharks. Nevertheless these operators often fall victims to our inclement weather.

For many years I wondered what would rock up if I had the resources to go to sea off western Britain and mount a large scale, round the clock, chumming operation for several days. We know we have Makos, Threshers, Blues and Hammerheads etc. and some of us even believe we get the occasional Great White vagrant visitor. I dreamt of chumming day and night off Cornwall and attracting all the species mentioned, and then on the last day a Great White swum up to say hello! I dreamt and I dreamt, then a miracle, or rather an amazing phone call happened.

A film producer rang me and said that ITV had commissioned his company to tow a large dead whale out to sea and film what came up to eat it. Did I want to be involved, did I think we would attract any sharks, and when and where should they do it etc.? After I had picked myself up from the floor where I had landed when I fell off my chair at the shock of what I was hearing, I gave the proposition careful consideration for a full nanosecond and jumped at the chance.

Here I have to stop because the programme hasn't been broadcast yet and I am not allowed to talk about what happened. But we went to sea and it worked to a spectacular degree. Keep your eyes open for a two part whale programme on ITV soon to be broadcast. The sharks are in part two and you will see what I saw amazing.

I have always had very mixed feelings about holding wild animals in captivity. Aquariums and zoos certainly provide awareness and education opportunities, and school visits to such places have often inspired the zoologists, conservationists, marine biologists and naturalists of each generation. It is certainly an over simplification to say that keeping wild creatures captive is always wrong, but lines have to be drawn. One obvious red line is when financial opportunity takes precedence over animal welfare. In January there was a dramatic example of this, when a Great White shark died (I believe was basically killed) in a Japanese aquarium in Okinawa. The 3.5 metre (11.5 foot) male was accidentally caught in a net in southwest Japan, from where it was transported to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium; the animal was dead three days later.

There can be few aquarists in the world who are unaware how difficult, indeed virtually impossible, it is to keep Great Whites in captivity for any length of time. The aquarium wasted no time announcing it was exhibiting the shark which initially seemed to be doing well, before suddenly weakening and sinking to the bottom of the tank where it died.

We will never know whether the shark would have survived had it been released when captured, but logic says it would have had a much better chance. No conservation awareness, or scientific aims, have been reported in connection with the decision to exhibit the shark, so it seems to be a clear case of profit being the motivation; and the shark paying the price for human greed.

Do Great Whites visit U.K. waters? This is a question which has vexed researchers and shark enthusiasts for many years. There is no solid concrete recent evidence of these sharks being in our waters. There is however a considerable amount of compelling anecdotal evidence that they are occasional vagrant visitors.

I have logged nearly 100 cases of reported Great White encounters off our shores. The likelihood of these reports having actually involved Great Whites ranges from ludicrously unlikely to highly probable. The credible reports are about 10% with some probably involving the same shark, and all of the credible cases being clustered off the Southwest of England, and the Northwest of Scotland.

For many years people have suggested that I should describe the credible cases in a book. I have resisted this because I am a huge believer in Sod's law, and I have always thought that as soon as I put a book out a proven sighting would occur and render the book out of date. Early this year I bowed to pressure and wrote 'The U.K. Great White Enigma'. This short book lists all the credible reports and explores the whole case surrounding this fascinating question. It will be out in early May published by Shark Cornwall and available from Natural History Book Services, Richard Peirce website, Shark Conservation Society website shop and shops throughout Cornwall and Devon.

If you buy the book I hope you enjoy it, and if and when a proven Great White shark does rock up I will celebrate it, and delight in the book being out of date!

Go well and keep supporting sharks.

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