Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

It is edited by CFZ Director Jon Downes, and subbed by the lovely Lizzy Bitakara'mire (formerly Clancy), scourge of improper syntax. The daily newsblog is edited by Corinna Downes, head administratrix of the CFZ, and the indexing is done by Lee Canty and Kathy Imbriani. There is regular news from the CFZ Mystery Cat study group, and regular fortean bird news from 'The Watcher of the Skies'. Regular bloggers include Dr Karl Shuker, Dale Drinnon, Richard Muirhead and Richard Freeman.The CFZ bloggo is updated daily, and there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. Come and join us...

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER OLL LEWIS: This shark, swallow UK whole

Apart from the fact that his puns are terrible and he has an obsession with the more surreal side of Internet culture, Oll Lewis hasn't put a foot wrong since we started this bloggo-thing. Because of his interest in things aquatic he has been co-ordinating the lake and sea monster news for the CFZ for some years now, and as regular readers of this bloggo will already know he is letting this obsession spill over online..

Ten years ago this summer the London’s press descended upon the Cornish seaside town of Padstow. The cause of this cockney cavalcade was the alleged sighting of a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) by local fishermen. The media circus stayed for a few days, perhaps expecting the bodies of half eaten swimmers to turn up on the beach and some ‘Jaws’ style panic to start among the holiday makers. They certainly geared up for this, the Sun’s article was typically over the top suggesting that it was only a matter of time before this 15 foot long killing machine started to devour surfers JUST LIKE THE MOVIE!!!

The shark was not seen again, the journalists got a few days at the seaside and a few stories and Padstow got a bit of free publicity, enticing more tourists to come to the picturesque town, every body won. As a result of this it has become almost an annual occurrence that sometime during the summer, when parliament is in recess and stories are thin on the ground, the newspapers will send a journalist or two to cover the latest sighting of a great white shark off the British coast. The cynic in me wonders why all the summer great white sightings seem to happen in nice little seaside towns in the South West and great whites are never seen in the sort of cities in the north that seem to fill most tabloid journalists with a sense of fear and dread. In recent years several of these sightings have been exposed as hoaxes including a film that showed film of a great white shark taken off the coast of Cornwall according to the fellow who sold it to the Sun. The same man revealed that this he had filmed the sharks off the coast of South Africa, not Cornwall, to the Daily Star a few days later.

It’s tempting to dismiss all this as just tabloid hyperbole, but could great white sharks really be living around the British coast? There is no reason why they couldn’t be, the nearest confirmed populations are only in the Bay of Biscay and British costal waters are warm enough for their survival, thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Britain’s costal waters are also home to plenty of potential shark food (fish, pinnipeds and other aquatic mammals) and several other species of shark definitely feed around our coasts. However, just because a place would make a good habitat for an animal it does not necessarily mean that the animal is there. For example Indian Elephants would have little trouble surviving in Mexico, but geographical barriers mean that the species has never and, save for interference from man, never live in the wild in Mexico.

Eye witness sightings can be mistaken; many of the claimed great white shark sightings around our coasts are based on the fact that someone saw a large triangular fin jutting out of the water and assumed it was Jaws himself. This can account for the majority of sightings but not for the 1999 Padstow sighting. The shark was seen by a party of experienced fishermen, who would certainly be able to see the difference between a great white shark and other large sharks and marine mammals they would encounter regularly in the area. The fishermen were able to get a very good look at the shark and accurately estimate its size because it came within five foot of their boat. One large species of shark they would certainly be familiar with would be the porbeagle shark, a large porbeagle would be landed a little way along the coast from them near Boscastle in 2002 weighing 484 lbs (219.5 kg). One of the fishermen, Mike Turner, had even been a fisherman in South Africa, where he would have regularly encountered great white sharks.

Other possible evidence of great white sharks around the UK coast surfaced in late December 2007 when a lifeboat crew in Sherringham, Norfolk found a gory surprise waiting for them on their slipway; a freshly killed grey seal with a huge chunk bitten out of it. The seal had been bitten from the underside and serrated tooth marks were seen in the wound. Close up photographs of the wounds were examined by Dr Ken Collins of the National Oceanography centre in South Hampton, who confirmed that the bite was likely to have been made by a large shark that came in fast and attacked the animal. Dr Collins said a great white shark was one of a very small list of possible suspects, and not one that could be discounted.

Looking at the evidence it seems that great white shark do inhabit the costal waters of Britain, but are not here in large numbers. Personally, if I was taking a swim in the seas off Britain I’d be more concerned about pollution than great white sharks.

1 comment:

Max Blake said...

I think that Oll is absolutely right, and that great white sharks do, on occasion, visit UK territorial waters. However, they are only visitors not residents here. The species is not usually sedentary, and is usually only so when there is a large abundance of food. Most of the evidence seems to show that for the most time they are migratory and move around from feeding ground to feeding ground. Tagged specimens are known to move 25,000 km per year, but this is exceptional and in the main the distance is less than 1/3 of the above number.

It looks to me as if GWS are moving from the Spanish coasts, up into British waters, eating a few seals and then returning to Spain. GWS are only known from waters at least 12 degrees C, and so this limits their arrival times into British waters. This would account for the small amount of evidence and sightings as they spend a short period of time in British waters before moving off to new feeding areas.