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Sharks in Britain: Let's cut the bullsh*t

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There’s a bit of an in-joke here in the Westcountry that August is known as Great White Season. Not because of any sort of big shark migration, but because every year someone goes running to the papers with the story of how they saw a fin in the sea and it was definitely Jaws.

And frankly, we in the surfing industry are getting a bit sick of it. Not only is every single story 90% bollocks, it’s also damaging to tourism.



Let's take a look at the Sun's front page image from above, suggesting there was a Great White off the Cornish coast:





This is a Great White fin.


This is a Basking Shark fin.



I get that the Sun is as much a newspaper as Dr Pepper is a doctor. But you'd think they'd be a bit more responsible when it comes to telling people what might and might not eat them. It's all very Boy who cried Wolf.

So when this story emerged last week, we thought it was time to put an article out there featuring someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. If you can't be bothered to click on the link, someone caught a Porbeagle. Who tend to stay miles out to sea and attack humans who drag them onto fishing boats.

We got in touch with Richard Pierce, Chairman of the Shark Trust and the Shark Conservation Society, to level with us about the reality of sharks in Britain.



Richard investigating marine life


We've all seen Basking Sharks, but what other types of shark can be found in British waters?

There are about 30 different species of sharks in British waters including Blue Sharks, Makos, Porbeagles, Threshers, Spurdogs, Tope, Hammerheads, and of course Basking Sharks and many others.


Every summer we hear about someone who thinks they've seen a Great White off the Cornish coast. What are the usual explanations?

Most of the time these claims are mistaken identity and are Porbeagles or Basking Sharks. However there are a few credible sightings which may have been Great Whites, but no solid proof exists. The big mystery is not whether we get the occasional Great White visiting British waters, but why they are not residents or regular visitors. Our marine conditions are identical to those in places where Great White shark populations exist.



A Basking Shark. Deadly if you happen to be a shoal of Plankton.


What can you tell us about the possible Great White sightings around the UK?

I have investigated close to 100 claimed sightings of Great White sharks. Following investigation less than 10 of these remain credible. And these are clustered off Cornwall and the Western Isles of Scotland. While no hard proof of Great Whites in British seas exists in recent times, there is proof they were here thousands of years ago, and the closest confirmed Great White to Britain was in the northern bay of Biscay, less than 200 miles from our shores. For anyone who is interested full descriptions of all the credible Great White sightings make up chapter two of my book Sharks in British Seas.


Are visits from certain types of shark becoming more likely? And if so, why do you think this is?

Climate change is leading to rising sea temperatures and this in turn is causing fish species to occur in different places. Where there is prey there will always be predators, so if migratory prey species change their patterns they may bring predators with them. I think we have to be completely pragmatic about this kind of thing and underline the very low risk posed by sharks to human water users.



There is so much wrong with this.


I often feel like the British media sensationalises shark stories, do you have thoughts on this?

The British media doesn’t so much need a serious dose of ‘man up’ pills, they need to take an overdose of ‘grow up’ medicine. It is extraordinary that despite all the work done by organisations like the Shark Trust and others, despite sensible reporting in dive magazines and others, and despite series like the excellent new BBC 1 ‘Shark’, the newspapers are still afflicted by ‘Jaws’ mania. An old newspaper adage is Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and this certainly seems to be the way the newspapers, and in particular the tabloids, treat shark stories.


As an expert, do you have any advice for potential new surfers who might be a bit worried about all this shark talk?

There has never been a real shark attack in British waters, so I don’t think surfers have any reason to feel nervous. If Great Whites became regular visitors then care would have to be taken, but it must be remembered that even in places like South Africa and Australia where attacks occur, they are very, very rare compared to the number of water users.


Finally, do you surf?

I don’t surf anymore, but used to. Apart from passing years having taken their toll and fitness levels not being what they should be, time is at a real premium.


Thanks Richard. Hopefully now we can all feel a bit more clued up and safer in the surf.



If you’d like any more information on sharks in Britain, you can visit Richard’s website, the Shark Trust or the Shark Conservation Society.


By Alfie Hayward



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