THE FIELD SEASON BEGINS
July 14, 2018
“Everything looks the same!"
Those were my words to Emmett as we drove past the big sign announcing “Buncrana” a few weeks ago. After a sixteen-hour travel day through New York, London, and Belfast, I had finally arrived back at the small town that I remembered so fondly. But, I was quickly to learn that though Buncrana seemed relatively unchanged, this field season would be markedly different from the first. I’ve been here since the 30th of June, over a month earlier than I arrived in 2017. This is because, undeterred by the lack of sharks we observed last August, I’m attempting a new strategy. Basking sharks are highly migratory and only seasonally reside in “hotspot” locations, such as Malin Head. During other times of the year, they track plankton blooms elsewhere. Some sharks remain local, traveling north and south primarily in the northeastern Atlantic region, between England, Scotland, and Ireland. Others will migrate as far south as Africa during the winter months , returning north only during the summer. The sharks at Malin Head are thought to trek up to Scottish waters to feed at the end of spring, as there is often a spike in the number of observations around May or early June. I’m hoping to catch them (not literally!) when they come back down for a longer period, which generally occurs in July and August. Thus, I’ve come as early as possible in the basking shark season and will stay until early September. If this strategy fails in spite of the fact that basking sharks have been observed here for centuries, we probably have a bigger concern than completing my data collection.
Though I’ve arrived earlier in the year, I wasn’t expecting the drastic change in weather than greeted me for the entirety of my first week. Then again, I’m not sure anyone was. I hadn’t packed for seventy-degree heat and persistent sun, and it was almost disarming to be able to step (and keep) my feet in the water at the beach in town. There’s been almost no rain in the recent month, and Ireland is actually experiencing a bit of what we so often have in California – a drought. As a result, since I've been here the waters in this part of Inishowen have been flat and calm, Lough Swilly crystal clear. If the sharks are here, we likely would have seen them by now. It may just be too early in the season, because as of this writing, these leprechaun sharks have yet to reveal themselves.
Of course, we learned nothing last year if not persistence, and we’ve certainly spent several hours on the water already, combing the area for a telltale fin. However, this field season we are accompanied by a new set of eyes. The Irish Basking Shark Study Group has been hard at work in the off-season establishing a new educational course that is designed to provide a foundation in marine ecology to local youth. Through this Inishowen Coastal Explorer’s Program, twenty students completed 10 weeks of training throughout the spring, with sessions both in the classroom and on the water. Led by Emmett and Rosemary Sweeney (the education and outreach coordinator of the IBSSG), the Coastal Explorers learned to identify marine species and survey coastal habitats, in addition to basic boating skills. To conclude the program, we decided to recruit ten of them to join us in the shark-searching.
As a result, over the past two days, we’ve had not one but three boats surveying the waters around Malin Head. In addition to the Coastal Explorers, Emmett and I have been joined by Rosemary, Heather Vance (a familiar face from last season), and Chelsea Gray, a visiting scholar from the US who is assessing public perception of basking sharks in this area. Together, we’ve taught the Explorers the art of multi-tasking. As we searched for sharks, each boat was responsible for a different type of data collection. Onboard my boat, the Sand Piper, we tested the range of all of the “tech”, or the transmitters and receivers we hope to deploy. Students on Emmett’s boat (the Swilly Goose) learned about other types of equipment, such as tags that transmit radio waves through air (VHF transmitters) or data summaries through orbiting satellites (satellite tags). Heather, Chelsea and Rosemary all fit snugly on a bigger RIB to lead the Explorers in plankton sampling and other forms of environmental measurements.
So far, we’ve experienced false alarms and the slow return to the traditional Irish weather I had expected – chilly with transitional rain and sun. Although the basking sharks have yet to show, however, the Explorers have actually participated in a critical, if less glamorous, component of working with these animals. Thanks to recent funding from our universities (Queen’s University, Belfast, and University of California, Davis), as well as the National Geographic Society, we have started to accumulate new types of equipment. If we hope to track some sharks this summer, it’s going to be critical to make sure it all works, before we actually deploy it on the first basking shark we see. In addition, the environmental and plankton samples taken throughout the summer will provide a snapshot of the habitat the sharks will be swimming through. At the conclusion of our studies at Malin Head, our hope is to tie all of this data together to get a better idea of what makes this place a basking shark hotspot.
For more information on the Coastal Explorers Programme, feel free to contact me.
 Doherty, P. D., Baxter, J. M., Gell, F. R., Godley, B. J., Graham, R. T., Hall, G., ... & Speedie, C. (2017). Long-term satellite tracking reveals variable seasonal migration strategies of basking sharks in the north-east Atlantic. Scientific reports, 7, 42837.