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Mystery of the basking shark

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ANOTHER LIFE: Arriving once, in innocence and at the wrong or right time (depending on one's sensibilities) at the cliffs above Achill's Keem Bay, I found myself watching the execution of a large basking shark trapped in nets in the water below. As a lance was thrust from the crowding currachs, the scene had little in common with bold battles in wild seas re-enacted for Flaherty's famous "documentary" Man of Aran. Blood trailed briefly through the limpid water as the beast was towed ashore for the great oily liver that made, perhaps, one third of its weight.

Forty years on from the peak of the Achill enterprise that killed 12,342 of the world's second largest fish, Irish marine researchers have had an amazing summer. In forays off Inishowen in Co Donegal and around the Blasket Islands off Kerry, they caught up with no fewer than 101 of the sharks swimming at the surface and reached out from their rib with extendable painter's poles to plant colour- coded tags in the dorsal fins.

Even a decade ago, remarkably little was known about the comings and goings of Cetorhinus maximus.What had been sorted out was its maximum size (rarely more than 10 metres) and phenomenal, open- mouthed throughput of ocean (nearly 1,500 cubic metres every hour) to gulp the pink-centred zooplankton, Calanus, that fills its stomach with something like tomato ketchup.

The big mystery was where the animals went in winter.....

read more here

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. E-mail : Include a postal address

Originally published by MICHAEL VINEY.

(c) 2009 Irish Times.

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The Aran Islands lie eight miles into the Atlantic ocean, off the West Coast of Ireland, one the last remaining wild and natural environments in Europe.
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Scattered  between sea and sky Seamus Heaney describes the  Islands as "three stepping stones out of Europe".  The island population is about 1,000 peopel most of whom converse in the Irish language. Almost a million visitors come here every year. Most go to Inis Mor, a lot go to Inis Oirr and very few go to Inis Meain. Thats why we think of it as the real Hidden Ireland.
All three islands teem with wildflowers and birdlife and are also considered by many to be the last bastions of ancient Irish culture.

"Monsters with sails" fill Irish waters

THEY ARE known as the "sunfish" and as the "monster with sails" in Irish, and our northwest waters are "teeming" with them. writes LORNA SIGGINS, Irish Times Marine Correspondent

Scientists working off the Co Donegal coast have tagged a record 50 basking sharks in three days this week.

"Astounding" is how Dr Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group described the numbers, which reflect a fraction of the potential basking shark population in these waters.

"I would normally expect to be lucky if we tagged 50 in a whole year," he said.

The basking shark was hunted off the south and west coasts until 20 years ago. Fishermen nicknamed it the "sunfish" due to its habit of swimming just below the surface.

"It was also known as liop an dá - unwieldy beast with two fins - or more generally liabhán mór, signifying a great leviathan," Dr Berrow said.

"The most evocative Irish name for it is liabhán chor gréine - the great fish of the sun."

Dr Berrow and National Parks and Wildlife Service conservation ranger Emmett Johnston set out earlier this week to tag the shark off Donegal, as part of a project funded by the Heritage Council.

"In two hours last Monday we tagged 23 sharks, and we found 19 the following day - four of which had been tagged the day before," Dr Berrow said.

By Wednesday of this week they had attached their 50th tag, using colourcoded devices fixed with a modified telescopic pole.

Four colours are used to denote the coastal locations of Donegal, Kerry, Cork and "other areas".

Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and Crossing the Line Films have also funded two satellite tags, which last four months and which the researchers use for specific tracking.

Dr Berrow said recent studies in Britain using satellite data have raised questions about whether basking sharks hibernate in winter. The British results record long-distance movements between Cornwall and Scotland, with one shark travelling 1,878km (1,167 miles) in 77 days across the Celtic Sea and up the western seaboard of Ireland, he said.

"A basking shark tagged in the Isle of Man in 2007 went to Newfoundland, a distance of 9,589km [5,958 miles] in 82 days, which was the first evidence of a transatlantic movement," Dr Berrow said.

Increased marine productivity, which may be linked to climate change, could be one of several reasons for greater numbers of the shark in these waters, he added.

Basking sharks were a by-catch in drift nets for salmon, now outlawed, he said.

The fish were hunted for oil until the mid-1970s off the west coast and Dr Berrow noted that the street lights of Galway and Waterford were lit with basking shark oil in 1742.

"The best-documented basking shark fishery was off Achill Island, Co Mayo. Between 1950 and 1964, 9,000 sharks were killed, with a record 1,808 killed in 1952 alone," Dr Berrow said. The fishery closed in 1975, but Norwegian vessels continued to catch the shark commercially off Co Waterford until 1986, when an estimated 2,000 were killed.

Basking sharks are protected in Britain and Northern Ireland but not in the Republic.

The EU recently placed a moratorium on fishing for the sharks in these waters.

Any sightings of the basking shark or of tagged sharks should be conveyed to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

Further information on the project is available from

American blue heron flies to Connemara

SF Weekly Blogs

WILDLIFE ENTHUSIASTS are celebrating a first for Ireland and Europe with the arrival of a little blue heron in Connemara reports the Irish Times, Western Correspondent LORNA SIGGINS

Hundreds of birders, twitchers and "listers" have been arriving in the west Galway village of Letterfrack to view the bird, which is native to parts of north America.

The juvenile egretta caerulea may have been blown off course. It is in good condition and "feeding remarkably well" in Barnaderg Bay near Letterfrack, says Aonghus Ó Dómhnaill, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) conservation ranger who confirmed the rare landing.

"Equivalent to 10 Olympic gold medals in birdwatching terms," is how Mr Ó Dómhnaill describes the first sighting of this species in Ireland or the rest of Europe.

Mr Ó Dómhnaill was in Letterfrack on September 24th when he was approached by local man Tom McCrudden and told about "what may be a little egret in the bay", he said.

"We went to look at it, it was moving between 200 yards and 20 yards of us and we had a feeling there was something different about it."

"By lunchtime, most of the Irish birdwatchers had arrived, and some had travelled from England by evening. On Monday, a group from Britain even chartered a plane to travel west.

"Normally, the rare birds which weather brings us here are so exhausted when they arrive that they never survive long," Mr Ó Dómhnaill said yesterday.