All Shark and No Bite

It's no Jaws, but the huge basking shark is drawing tourists, journalists and researchers to Britain's Isle of Man

06-01-2003 // Tara Mack
National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

THIS IS WHAT we’re looking for," says Ken Watterson, poking a long finger onto a photograph of a basking shark dorsal fin clipped into a black binder. His voice is flat and dejected. He doesn’t bother telling the group of tourists clustered around him about the little colorful details—like the way the shark’s stomach mucus turns the plankton it eats into a substance with the consistency of tomato soup. It’s been a miserable summer for Watterson.

Watterson is the founder and director of the Basking Shark Society, located on the Isle of Man—a stubborn hunk of rock crammed between Ireland and Britain. The 47-year-old island native spends half his week working as a bank manager. The rest of his time he spends on his boat, Jasmine, studying basking sharks or supervising tourists who snorkel alongside them.

He likes to impress his guests by telling them that the second-largest shark in the world swims just off the British coast. "When I started working on this, nobody would believe that there were large sharks in British waters," he says, sitting on the deck of the Jasmine. "That was the first challenge. The next was raising funding for an animal that people saw as a Jaws."

Thanks in part to the efforts of Watterson and a handful of other conservationists and scientists, the once-obscure basking shark is now a minor celebrity in Britain. The British government is pouring money into research and supporting international protection efforts. Watterson’s tours are so popular they are booked up more than a month in advance, often with documentary crews that want to film this king of the fishes. "Ken has been a key player in the public awareness campaign," says Paul Knapman, fisheries liaison officer for English Nature, a national conservation organization.

But this season has been a disaster, and this afternoon is no exception. Usually at the height of summer the tourists are strolling along the deck of the Jasmine in T-shirts and shorts, binoculars clamped to their eyes. Today they are huddled in fleeces and windbreakers with little hope of seeing more than a few puffins. Watterson circles the deck anxiously, his long, thin frame covered by a black Basking Shark Society T-shirt and jeans. His blue eyes, capped by a permanently furrowed brow, scan the waters in vain.

He blames it on an unusually windy season that has forced the sharks, which usually skim along the water’s surface, to move into deeper waters. Other scientists aren’t so sure. They are worried the drop in sightings might be an ominous sign. That’s the problem with the basking shark. For such a large and well-distributed animal, it is still something of a mystery.

Here’s what scientists can tell you about the basking shark: It’s the second-largest fish in the world after the tropical whale shark, stretching as long as 40 feet and weighing nearly 6 tons (about the same as an elephant). It glides slowly along the surface of the water (thus earning its "basking" moniker), its mouth cranked open three feet sucking up plankton as it swims. It draws thousands of gallons of water per hour through its gill rakers. The basking shark gives birth to live young. And it can be found in temperate waters throughout the world, including both coasts of the United States, South America, Europe, South Africa, Australia, China and New Zealand.

Here’s what they can’t tell you with any certainty: how many of them there are in Britain, or anywhere else for that matter; their exact lifespan, length of pregnancy or rate of maturation.

Historically, the basking shark has been fished for its liver and fins. The liver was boiled into oil used for cosmetics and engineering applications. Gavin Maxwell, a well-known British author, made his literary debut in 1952 with an account of his failed attempt to set up a basking shark fishery in Scotland.

"The first Basking Shark of which one has a clear and entire view is terrifying," Maxwell writes in the opening chapter of his book Harpoon at a Venture. "One may speak glibly of fish twenty, thirty, forty feet long, but until one looks down upon a living Basking Shark in clear water, the figures are meaningless and without implication. . . . Its movements are gigantic, ponderous, and unfamiliar; it seems a creature from a prehistoric world, of which the first sight is as unexpected, and in some way as shocking, as that of a dinosaur or an iguanodon would be."

National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

Photo: © DOUGLAS DAVID SEIFERT

OF SHARKS AND MAN: As long as 40 feet from stem to stern, the basking shark is bigger than many boats. Despite its looming presence, the shark poses no threat to people. In fact, it’s become a magnet for tourists off Britain’s Isle of Man, where Ken Watterson leads tours on his boat Jasmine. Watterson, head of the Basking Shark Society, also conducts research by attaching harmless radio transmitters to the sharks and compiling a catalog of shark photos (left).

The demand for that oil has declined steeply since Maxwell set up shop in 1944, but at the same time in Asia the taste for shark fins is on the rise. Basking shark fins can stretch as long as six feet. Large, dried fins have sold for more than $16,000 in China. The countries that fish for and consume the basking shark are most stubbornly opposed to its protection.

Researchers believe that the length of pregnancy is roughly one to three years and that it may take as long as 20 years for female basking sharks to reach sexual maturity. With such a slow rate of reproduction and maturation, the basking shark is particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Sarah Fowler, trustee of the Shark Trust, a British research and conservation organization, estimates that 80,000 basking sharks have been taken from northeast Atlantic fisheries in the past 50 years.

There are detailed records of shark catches in the northeast Atlantic, but other data on the species has not come easily, Fowler notes. "You can’t go out with a hook and line and catch basking sharks," she says. "They’re too big and they don’t feed like that."

The British government and a team of scientists are betting on a new technology to help them study the basking shark: pop-up satellite tags. These tags are attached to the sharks and automatically pop to the surface of the water after a certain amount of time. The information stored on them is then downloaded via a satellite. More than 20 sharks have been fitted with the devices, and researchers are pleased with the results thus far. They have already learned that the sharks swim thousands of miles in pursuit of their prey, and that they can dive more than 2,000 feet under the ocean’s surface.

The satellite tagging is part of a three-year, $480,000 study, about half of which is being funded by the British government. It’s revealing much about the movement and behavior of sharks, but what’s also needed is an international network of researchers working cooperatively to determine the status of this creature, says David Sims, a research fellow with the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, in Plymouth, England.

"We don’t know enough about them to be worried, but we don’t know enough about them not to be," says Sims, who is leading the satellite-tagging study. "That’s the situation that we’re in."

The dearth of scientific data about basking sharks has long been cited by shark-fishing nations, led by Japan, as a reason for opposing international protection measures. But nations seeking to safeguard the shark, led by Britain, managed to overcome these objections last November at a meeting of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The meeting delegates voted to place the basking shark on CITES Appendix II, meaning that trade in the species will be regulated to ensure that the population is not harmed.

National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

Photo: © JEFF ROTMAN

FIN IN THE SUN: Basking sharks roam temperate waters worldwide. They stay close to the surface while feeding, a practice that early observers mistook for basking in the sun. Their shallow swimming habits make the sharks easy marks for fishers, who take thousands of the creatures each year. A large, dried shark fin like this one (left), on display in New York’s Chinatown, can fetch more than $16,000 in some parts of the world. Until recently, trade in basking sharks was unregulated.

That victory for basking sharks is due largely to the efforts of scientists and conservationists in Britain—people like Ken Watterson. Watterson got his start in shark advocacy as a five-year-old, when his father, a fisherman and boat builder, took him fishing off the coast of the Isle of Man and the terrified boy spied his first basking shark. Fear gradually turned to curiosity, and Watterson became hooked on the shark while studying science in college, when he realized there was so little information available about the creature. He began researching the shark using his father’s fishing boat in 1982. He started out with a low-tech approach—visual tags with numbers on them sponsored by local school children. Thirteen years later he set up a charity for the basking shark to raise money for his research. Now a lot of the funding comes from his tourism.

Watterson would like to do this work full time. For a brief but exciting year he was able to devote all his working hours to basking shark research thanks to a grant from America. But when the money ran out, he was forced to return to his job at the bank.

National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

Photo: © DOUGLAS DAVID SEIFERT

OPEN WIDE: With its three-foot-wide mouth ajar, a basking shark can draw in thousands of gallons of water an hour. It filters plankton out of the brine to sustain itself, and passes the water out through gill slits. New research shows that the huge fish will swim thousands of miles in pursuit of its prey. Scientists are still trying to solve many mysteries about the basking shark, including how many of the creatures populate the planet.

Watterson is not shy about plugging his organization at every opportunity. He claims credit for getting the shark protected in British waters, though others active in shark conservation say he exaggerates his role. He also says he’s turned the Isle of Man onto the shark—a more credible claim. The Isle of Man is an odd little place, a British crown dependency with its own government and laws. Its Celtic natives call themselves Manxmen. The islanders are so proud that the waters around them are host to such a magnificent fish that they issued a basking shark stamp and a commemorative coin. Watterson’s cell phone is constantly ringing with sighting reports from fishermen and the coast guard and islanders who keep an eye out for the sharks while walking their dogs on the sweeping cliffs.

The charms of the basking shark are not a tough sell. If there was ever a fish qualified to be ambassador for the shark kingdom, the basking shark is it. Its massive size lends it prestige, and its microscopic diet makes it non-threatening. And they’re usually very obliging to tourists—swimming right up to the side of a boat.

But tourism is about more than entertaining visitors with the antics of the basking shark. The idea is to show fishing nations there are other ways to make money off the shark. "What we have to do is provide a reason to protect the sharks," he explains. "And the reason I think is that we can make them more valuable alive than they are dead."

So now, during the slivers of free time he can find between his work, his research and tourism, he’s working on a doctorate in marine biology and promoting his new book on shark-watching. In fact, when he stops to think about it, his life is dedicated to the basking shark. "It is, isn’t it?" he says, letting a chuckle slip through an otherwise serious demeanor. "What a sad person."

All the more reason to feel disappointed that on this particular summer afternoon, his tourists are going to go home without even a glimpse of a dorsal fin. Fortunately, Watterson has a collection of very patient and understanding guests. Chris Hurst, a brawny printer and part-time fireman, says he had packed his diving equipment.

"People think of sharks and they automatically think of something that’s going to attack you. I told my friends about it before I came and they looked at me like, ‘Are you mad?’" But Hurst isn’t too upset that he’s going to disembark this afternoon with his diving equipment still in its bag. "Just because we haven’t seen it today," he says, "doesn’t mean we wouldn’t come back again."

Watterson believes the basking shark needs people like Hurst to come back again. He’s hoping that shark tourism is going to become the next big thing in adventure travel. Which will make the basking shark a valuable commodity. Which will give countries a reason not to fish it. Which will ensure that the basking shark population can travel the oceans in peace.

Which will make Ken Watterson a very happy man.

Tara Mack spent three years reporting and writing from London before moving back to the United States late last year.

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