Basking Shark

Friday 16 February: 20.00–21.00

Continuing this evening is the fascinating wildlife documentary series in which naturalist Nick Baker scours the world for the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. In this programme, Nick is on home territory on the trail of the basking shark, the second-largest fish in the world.

Statistically, the best place to spot a basking shark in the UK is off the coast of Cornwall, so it is from the Lizard peninsula that Nick sets off, along with local shark expert John Nightingale and boat captain Barry Mundy. Although initially promising, the weather soon takes a typically British turn, and the hunt is called off. Not only does such rough weather limit visibility, but it churns and disperses the plankton, prompting the basking shark to head for deeper water in its relentless search for food. The day is not a complete washout, however – at a secluded inlet, Nick has a chance to swim with a grey seal. At up to three metres long and three hundred kilos, the grey seal is Britain’s largest native mammal – not a bad substitute for the recalcitrant shark… for now.

Nick’s next stop is the laboratory of Dr David Sims, one of the only scientists to have successfully tracked basking sharks. Will Dr Sims’s knowledge and experience lead Nick to the gigantic beast he is seeking? Certainly the team’s next trip starts off well – within a few hundred metres of the harbour, they spot a sunfish, the largest species of bony fish in the world. As they proceed along the Cornish coast, a pod of more than 20 dolphins swims alongside, leaping in and out of the boat’s bow wave. The sharks, however, remain elusive.

Back at the lab, Nick and Dr Sims analyse charts of the sea temperature. Where areas of cold and warm water meet, a ‘tidal front’ or convection current is created, bringing clouds of plankton to the surface. With their keen senses, the basking sharks can detect subtle changes in water temperature, and Dr Sims has tracked sharks following these ‘feeding corridors’ with unerring precision. As the warm water moves north over the summer, Nick decides to follow it, hoping to encounter a bloom in plankton – and shark activity.

The Isle of Mull is known to be a seasonal shark hot spot, and with the right conditions the chances of a sighting are high. The weather is not playing ball, however, and Nick and his team are subjected to a series of bumpy rides off the coast of western Scotland. But just as they are giving up hope, the team meet local shark expert Colin Speedie – and get a tantalising glimpse of a six-metre shark. They follow the animal in a small inflatable, but the high winds and rain lower visibility and they are forced to give up. It’s a sighting, but it’s not the close-up Nick was looking for.

Fearing the shark season will end and leave them high and dry, the team return to Cornwall and are greeted by good news – a large shark has been seen that morning. Although a basking shark’s cruising speed is only three miles per hour, they can disappear in a flash, so the team rush to meet their long-anticipated visitor. Will their persistence be rewarded with a proper sighting of this magnificent animal in clear water?

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