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02 July, 2014

Secrets of Scotland’s basking sharks revealed in new report

Seas between the islands of Skye and Mull on Scotland’s west coast are highly important for basking sharks, according to a report published today (Wednesday) by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Each year large numbers of basking sharks are seen in an area of the Sea of the Hebrides which is currently being assessed as part of the Scottish Marine Protected Areas Project.

The report sets out findings from the first two years of a project which aims to reveal some of the mysteries surrounding the world’s second largest fish. The project is a joint venture between SNH and the University of Exeter (UoE), and is the first known to use satellite tagging technology to track the near real-time movements of basking sharks.

Twenty sharks were tagged in summer 2012 and a further 31 were tagged a year later. In both years the tagged sharks spent most of July, August and September in waters around the islands of Coll and Tiree and the Hyskeir lighthouse. In these months more than 80% of the satellite transmissions received from tagged sharks came from within the Sea of the Hebrides. This is seen as further evidence that the area is a special place for these sharks.

Scientists at SNH and UoE believe the sharks return each year to feed in the area’s plankton-rich seas but the sharks’ behaviour suggests they might come for other reasons too.

Dr Suzanne Henderson from SNH, who is managing the project said:

“As well as cruising around and feeding at the surface they can be seen showing courtship-like behaviours, such as jumping clear of the water, known as breaching and swimming around nose-to-tail. These social behaviours suggest that the sharks return to the area not just to feed on the plankton bloom but for other reasons too, perhaps even to find a mate.”

Information received from the tags also shows that the sharks spend these summer months at different depths, moving up and down in the water on a daily basis. A large proportion of their time is spent in shallow water less than five metres deep, but they also spend time in deeper water down to 250 metres. There doesn’t seem to be a single pattern to this daily vertical migration, and it appears that the sharks adapt their behaviour to local conditions.

Dr Matthew Witt from UoE said:

“We know quite a lot about basking shark biology and distribution but relatively little about their seasonal movements, although we have already learnt a lot from the first two years of this project. We now know that as autumn approaches the sharks start to spend more time in deeper water, with less activity at the surface. Two of the sharks reached depths of over 1000 metres, indicating that they were off the continental shelf.

“After September the sharks head away from Scotland and evidence suggests that the Celtic and Irish Seas are an important migration route for them. Only one shark was tracked migrating south via the west coast of Ireland, others were tracked moving south to the Isle of Man and south-west England. One shark was seen to head as far south as the Canary Islands.”

Information from the tags is fed to a website where people can follow the sharks’ movements. After a few months the tags tend to fall off but some of the tags attached in 2013 are still on the sharks.

Suzanne said:

“One of the sharks we tagged last year which migrated to the Isle of Man, and likely beyond, has recently returned to Scotland this year. This is exciting because although we believe it’s the same sharks returning to the Sea of the Hebrides each year, this is the first evidence we have. It highlights the importance of the route between the Isle of Man and Scotland for basking sharks.

“Coincidently this is also the first shark we tagged last year, which was named Soki by Grace – a budding scientist who helped the project by finding a detached tag the previous year in Loch Fyne.

“There are some other sharks with tags still attached, so we may see more returning to Scotland this year, providing further evidence of the importance of the Sea of the Hebrides for basking sharks. People can keep an eye on the tracking website and hopefully watch this unfold.”

Mathew said:

“We will be out tagging sharks again this year, which will hopefully reveal more secrets about the lives of these majestic fish.

“Some of the tags contain additional information which is not transmitted, so it’s important that we retrieve these. We’d urge anyone who finds a tag around the UK’s shores to get in touch. There is a reward available for each tag returned.”

The tags are silver grey, torpedo shaped and 15 to 18 cm in length with a small antenna. If found please pick up and contact the SNH office in Oban on 0300 244 9360, or email

For more information on the project and to follow the movements of the tagged basking sharks online, go to

Another report published today as part of the Scottish Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) Project reveals some of the science behind Scotland’s possible MPAs. It describes how detailed ecological guidance on selected marine wildlife was produced to help SNH complete their assessment of the features and sites that could make up Scotland’s MPA network.


Notes to editors

Notes for editors

Both reports are published on the SNH website and can be viewed via the links below.

SNH Commissioned Report 752; Basking shark satellite tagging project: insights into basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) movement, distribution and behaviour using satellite telemetry (phase 1 July 2014)

SNH Commissioned Report 491:Development of Detailed Ecological Guidance to Support the Application of MPA Selection Guidelines within Scotland’s Seas: Final Report

We’ve a short (1:53) video about sharks in the Sea of Hebrides here -

And a longer (6:33) one here -

Free, colour footage and pictures of the basking shark tagging work are available for one-off use.

For footage please contact Norman Strachan Video Ltd on 01349 883205 / 07774 270322 or

For pictures please contact Dominic Shann, SNH media & public relations officer on 01463 725157 or

For information on the basking shark tagging project - go to

Follow the sharks’ movements here -

The tag is attached to the base of the dorsal fin of the shark with a titanium metal dart using an extendable darting pole. There are two types of tag used. Fifteen of the sharks in 2013 were fitted with tags which provide information on the position of the shark each time it comes to the surface, allowing it to be tracked online. The remaining tags are designed to collect data on depth, temperature and light levels over several months and then detach from the shark. These tags then float to the surface and transmit collected data to satellites passing overhead. However, if they are physically retrieved then much more data can be collected.

Basking sharks can grow up to 11 m in length (the length of a double decker bus) and 7 tonnes in weight but they feed entirely on plankton, tiny animals that drift through the water. The plankton are caught in their enormous gaping mouth while the water is filtered out by their comb-like gills. They are long lived, with some surviving as long as 50 years. Because they are slow moving, slow to mature and long lived, they are very vulnerable to human disturbance and impacts. For generations they were hunted for the high oil content of their large livers. More recently they were hunted in European waters for their colossal fins.

Basking sharks are most often seen in coastal areas in the summer and autumn when plankton are abundant at the surface and this is how they get their name from apparently basking at the surface in calm, sunny weather.

Basking sharks in the North East Atlantic are recognised by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as "endangered". Trade in their body parts is restricted by the Convention on the International Trade for Endangered Species (CITES). In the UK they are protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981), as amended.

Marine Protected Areas

To meet international commitments, Scotland is required to create a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Scottish waters, under the Marine (Scotland) Act and the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act. The process is led by Marine Scotland. SNH's role is to provide information and advice about the marine environment in territorial waters to Marine Scotland and Ministers so they can decide where MPAs should be. The project also includes JNCC, Historic Scotland, Marine Scotland Science and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Basking sharks are one of a number of important species and habitats on the list of Priority Marine Features (PMFs), developed to help target conservation work in Scottish waters. A related list of MPA search features includes basking sharks, and is helping to drive the selection of nature conservation MPAs.

More information about the Scottish MPA process is available from:

Marine Scotland:



About the University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 18,000 students and is ranked 8th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, 10th in The Complete University Guide and 12th in the Guardian University Guide 2014. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 90% of the University’s research was rated as being at internationally recognised levels and 16 of its 31 subjects are ranked in the top 10, with 27 subjects ranked in the top 20. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University has four campuses. The Streatham and St Luke’s campuses are in Exeter and there are two campuses in Cornwall, Penryn and Truro. In a pioneering arrangement in the UK, the Penryn Campus is owned and jointly managed with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Science, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Human Sciences, Mathematics and the Environment, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Relations, Renewable Energy and Zoology.

The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the past few years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange at Penryn – together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for another £330 million of investment between now and 2016.

Contact information

Dominic Shann
Job Title
Media Relations Officer
01463 725157

NatureScot is Scotland's nature agency. We work to enhance our natural environment in Scotland and inspire everyone to care more about it. Our priority is a nature-rich future for Scotland and an effective response to the climate emergency. For more information, visit our website at or follow us on Twitter at

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Sharks swimming nose-to-tail: Sharks swimming nose-to-tail. Copyright Suz Henderson/SNH

Sharks swimming nose-to-tail

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Satellite tracking technology: Satellite tracking technology

Satellite tracking technology

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