Before you ask, yes, TFUI Founder Melissa wants to do this SO BAD. In fact, she was really close when we went to a conference in Plymouth... but just didn't get the chance to go out and see one of this region's famous residents: basking sharks.
For now, Melissa has settled for the next-best thing: living (vicariously) through others, like Shane Wasik from Basking Shark Scotland! Basking Shark Scotland operators tours and research from April to October, from the western isles of Scotland based in Oban (find out more at: www.baskingsharkscotland.co.uk). The Fins United Initiative was able to wrangle Shane for a few minutes and have him talk about the work Basking Shark Scotland does...
The Fins United Initiative: Were you always interested in marine biology?
Shane Wasik: Growing up beside the sea it was all I ever wanted to do, my younger years I spend messing about the rocks, rock pools & beaches and I used go out on our boat with my father and grandfather. I start snorkeling on holidays quite young and then when I was 15 started my dive training! From there I did marine biology and worked in lots of different fields from aquariums to fishery and environmental protection, along with lots of different commercial & scientific diving, photography and even shipwreck disaster response!
TFUI: For those who don't know Basking Shark Scotland, can you elaborate on the organisation and what it does?
SW: Well having spent a lot of my youth scuba diving and running around having adventures, including swimming with the big fishes! It was only after I returned to Scotland after living in New Zealand for a lot of years that I founded Basking Shark Scotland.
TFUI: New Zealand is wonderful-- but I may be biased!
SW: I found the culture and environment in NZ so motivational and positive that I was quite disheartened when I returned back home to Scotland initially. Having found very few opportunities I thought that other people would like to share my previous mind blowing swims with basking sharks out in the islands. From there we started a tourism business which would allow us to conduct research at the same time, similar to many other organisations that have tours funded science! So essentially our business runs basking shark and wildlife tours to allow us to research the sharks, however since the basking sharks are very seasonal visitors we have to do lots of other things to keep the ship running. Such as swimming with seals, seabird safaris, scuba diving, hosting film crews and even cleaning out the penguin enclosure at the zoo - smelly job!!!
TFUI: Sounds like it, haha. In your opinion, do local people know enough about basking sharks (you know, considering they are basically neighbours sometimes…)?
SW: Oban, where we are based in the west highlands is a small coastal town where there is a lot of focus on the coast. Many peoples jobs are surrounding the sea, whether it be at the local research institute, ferrys, fisherman, yachting, tourism. We’re always surprised at how much the kids at school know and they can really throw the facts at you. The sharks are generally located in the islands offshore to the west of us and the the islanders are well used to them being there. It’s also a whale and dolphin hotspot, so they are used to seeing the likes of bottlenose or common dolphins, minke whales and the occasional orca. There are current proposals for a basking shark MPA (marine protected area) at the moment so they are also in the media a lot which helps the adults understanding too. So in the local area they are in our minds, but not so much else where.
TFUI: What has Basking Shark Scotland learned so far in its research about these animals?
SW: Over the last 5 years we’ve compiled A LOT of data and sometimes that’s the most challenging aspect!! We’ve got a good handle on their seasonal movements and favourite areas to hang out, along with how environmental conditions change that. We take a lot of measurements so we know the size class of the sharks showing that it’s mainly adults that visit (we almost never see juveniles and have never seen a pup). We think from the behaviours such as breaching and courtship that our area is a mating ground and through some drone study we’ve been observing that patterns of this. We’ve been the first to find piloting fish with the sharks, found some that have been fouled with plastic and returned the next year within five (5) miles and 10 days of the last know position (healed up thankfully).
TFUI: Woah! That's amazing! What else?!
SW: We’ve been recording parasite presence to try and understand that connection and every time we swim, we collect male/female data ratios and this can change drastically depending on the mating behaviour activity. Some of the smaller projects involve surface photo ID of the dorsal, for example in a project looking at the southerly migration we’re trying to mark-recapture sharks in another coastal area to see if the same sharks return here. Phew!!! However one of our concerns in plastics as they are feeding on current concentrated zooplankton, which are also areas that this in an area that plastics are pushed into. Our micro-study this year will be sampling for plastics around their feeding areas to try and ascertain how much plastic they could be ingesting.
TFUI: That sounds like really interesting stuff! So why is your research/outreach so important here?
SW: We have the biggest concentration of basking shark in the world.
SW: In a study in 2012, a environmental impact assessment for an offshore development sighted 918 sharks in a single day. When they talk about the North Atlantic population being around 20,000 then that’s a significant amount of the entire population to be seen on one day in a relatively small area. Scotland (and visiting Norwegian vessels) had a significant impact on the sharks through hunting in the 20th century so we going to be a long time till a full recovery from that. With the current proposal for an MPA being considered, then as we have such a large number of the entire species population visit us, it’s highly important we understand them and protect the areas they are visiting as it’s vitally import for them as a species.
TFUI: Do you think sharks are demonized in your local media? If so, what do you think can be done to make that better?
SW: In the local media, then generally it’s reasonably good accuracy and editorially. As above, local people generally know we have the sharks visit our coast and they have an awareness of it. However over the UK the media can frustrating with sensationalising shark arrivals, postulating about great whites etc. However in Scotland, as we have a lot of wildlife and a sympathetic government, the environment is reasonably represented. For example plastics has been very well covered recently along with the MPA proposal.
TFUI: Do you think wildlife tourism is important there?
SW: Wildlife tourism is an important industry here, from the marine sector to terrestrial species such as the re-introduction of white-tailed sea eagles and beavers, the conservation of red-squirrels and pine martens and also with trying to save the Scottish wildcat of of the planets most unheard of critical endangered species. Perhaps as we the sharks eat zooplankton there isn’t the same connection with predatory sharks and the fear factor the media thrives on in other countries.
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
SW: It’s the little moments when you are able to change peoples lives, such as the people with the fear of the ocean or sharks. Things like the kids that we can give transformational experiences to. One lucky 8 year old girl was in swimming with one of our guides and had the most amazing encounter with a massive shark and we know that moment changed her life, she’ll remember that forever! We’ve taken people with difficulties into the water, one memorable one being the deaf lady who just had her mind blown as we took her snorkeling through a kelp forest as the sunlight dappled through the kelp fronds and introduced her to a completely new world. Of course being able to work with sharks and second biggest is an honour in itself. But generally inspiring people about the oceans and sharing the magic with them is most rewarding part.
TFUI: Sounds magical! Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
SW: My impression from returning from NZ that in Scotland we had less of a good relationship. However, over the last few years my mind has been changed a little and I think it’s more to do with the location.
TFUI: What do you mean?
SW: For example there is a huge difference to peoples attitudes that live and work at the coast, to the inner cities. The cities are where the bulk of the population lie and are where a lot of the influence can come from.
TFUI: So, in your opinion, what can be done to strengthen (or, even create!) a relationship between man and ocean here?
SW: I think a lot could be done with educating kids from these areas who don’t have immediate access to the coast and inspire this part of the next generation. The likes of beach cleans are really good as they educate the kids and help them start to understand how their daily lives can impact the ocean and it’s wildlife. I have been impressed with the impact and legacy of the Blue Planet 2 series, but I was also very disappointed with the amount of time they spend in the tropics/poles and in far flung destinations. I always feel that from a British point of view, in order to inspire change here the BBC should spend more time & money on our own coastlines as I think this also has an impact with people. Having some much media based on far flung destinations means people have a disconnect with their own coast so don’t give it the same value. We have just as much mega fauna here, the biggest basking shark hotspot, predatory porbeagle sharks, visiting humpbacks, resident bottlenose dolphins, the biggest ecotype of orca in the world, in addition to our highly productive kelp forests, seagrass beds, maerl beds, flam shell reefs, soft and hard corals to name a few. If people have a connection to their own coastline and have that in their values then they seek to protect and nurture it. Sometimes I think that our coastline is just not fashionable enough for these big documentaries. One exception was the the series on the Hebrides, which has a great feature on the sharks. It’s not well know but narrated by Ewan McGregor (aka ObiWan) so if a Jedi Master thinks basking sharks are cool - who are we to argue!!! [laughs]
TFUI: [laughs] Very true! I won't be going against a Jedi Master, that's for sure! So do you think your wildlife ecotourism tours can positively change conservation behaviour in those who board your boats?
SW: Well moving on from the point above, one of the main aspects is that we try to change perceptions about the sea. Of course we have amazing encounters with basking sharks but there is so much else like the kelp forests, sea grass beds, seal colonies, seabirds etc. So we want people to engage and enjoy the ocean and see it’s beauty but also learn from it. We try to educate people in information about the species and environments we take them too. However we also like to have discussions about many other issues too. For example we have a lot of fish farming on our coast. There is no question that this is a polluting activity with impact on the wild stock, but there is a growing global population with a demand for protein. Our rural area is a fragile one and in need of jobs. So the hard questions we ask are around environment vs economics and it’s good to have people think about these things on their own. Other things could be scallop dredging boats which tear up the seabed for cheap seafood, so we try to make them understand the real cost of cheap scallops, which is the unseen one on the ocean floor.
TFUI: What do you hope customers take away from their experience with you?
SW: So we have it our mission for everyone to have a great time in the ocean, enjoy it’s beauty, it's wildlife and the gift of experience that she gives us. But we also like to have some take home messages, say about shark conservation, ocean exploitation and conflicts and about what they can do to help. We don’t try to be overbearing with this as I think it’s off-putting, but give them enough information to make up their own mind.
TFUI: What is the hardest aspect of your line of work? How have you overcome it or dealt with it?
SW: We’re based on the edge of the North Atlantic, which is an amazing but powerful and raw environment and she can be an angry old ocean! However when she’s calm and happy, then we can have the most amazing moments. Generally that’s what we advise people when visiting, is to come for long enough to take the weather out the equation. However it’s hard when the weather is against you have pressure to deliver experiences to demanding people. We have very good vessels designed to handle the roughest of weather, great staff who all have marine science background and a passion for the ocean, we have the most knowledge and environmental ethos but sometimes the weather just kicks all that into touch! So it’s hard when we have poor conditions, but we make the best of it and even if the sharks are hiding from the weather. We always have the likes of the seals to play with as a B plan!! Oh and a lot of whiskey distilleries too!
TFUI: Alcohol is usually a good plan C! [laughs] What has been your favourite wildlife encounter so far?
SW: Out in the islands, on the west side there is no further land till you get to Canada so we ave the most amazing sunsets over the coast. One very memorable evening was during a time when we have a lot of sharks inshore in a small area sometimes over 50. We’d gone out with a new group that evening as the weather was meant to be poor the next day and came across a huge group of sharks. We had some amazing interactions and stayed to watch the sunset with the sharks. The sky turned bright orange as we watched the sharks meander back and forth then all of a sudden we had a shark breach near the setting sun! Spring tingling stuff.
TFUI: Wow, I hope to see that soon! And, if you could tell people only ONE thing about basking sharks, what would it be?
SW: One - come on!!!!!
SW: Not the fact they are the most amazing, prehistoric, elusive, bad-ass sharks of them all.
TFUI: [laughs] I mean, isn't that more opinion than fact?
SW: Okay, okay. So the one fact is that although they eat plankton they still have teeth- many hundreds of them!!!
TFUI: Now THAT is one heck of a fin-fact!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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