Basking sharks are the world’s second largest fish and are to be found around the coast of Skye in summer. They get their name from their habit of, yes, you guessed it, basking which they do near the surface while swimming gently along with their huge mouths and gills open filter feeding tiny micro-organisms from the water.
Basking sharks move northwards in summer following their prey species which is shared by other fish, notably herring. In the days when herring netting was big business around the West Coast, basking sharks were very unpopular among fishermen who had to spend their days repairing torn nets before they could go fishing again at night.
Basking sharks yielded large quantities of oil from their livers. This was once in demand from the medicines and cosmetics industries. Demand was great enough to support a post-war shark fishery based on the small island of Soay, just off Elgol. The business was set up by none other than Ring of Bright Water otter man, Gavin Maxwell, and the remains of his factory on Soay can still be seen today.
The sharks were caught by harpooning them, whaling style. The venture was short lived as although the oil was valuable the rest of the carcass was not and most of the fish had to be dumped out at sea.
In those days the sharks were very numerous, like the herring, and were regularly seen up and down the Skye coast. Today, one of the hottest spots for seeing them in the UK is around the shores of the Island of Canna – about 12 miles off Elgol, so the best chance of seeing one is from a boat trip.
The village of Elgol, where Springbank Cottage, our self catering holiday let is located, has several boat trip operators taking visitors out to see the sharks and other wildlife including puffins, in the nesting season, and white-tailed sea eagles, which breed on Canna. Try Misty Isle Boat Trips or Bella Jane Boat Trips both of which operate from Elgol jetty. Each offers tours to a variety of destinations including Canna, so check with them to see what suits you best.
As always luck and the weather will play their part but being in the right place at the right time certainly improves your chances of seeing one of these amazing but little understood creatures. There’s more information and much better pictures at The Shark Trust website.