WiSe operators avoid disturbing sharks

Our blog today comes from Colin Speedie FRGS, founder of the WiSe Scheme, which works with marine wildlife tourism operators to promote good practice and minimise disturbance to the animals. For many years Colin worked as skipper and project leader of the Wildlife Trust’s Basking Shark project, conducting long-distance surveys on the species around the British Isles. He is the author of a new book on the history of the basking shark from the 1700’s until today ‘A Sea Monster’s Tale – in search of the Basking Shark’.

Wildlife watching from a boat near Stonehaven. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Wildlife watching from a boat. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The basking shark is once again in the news, following the publication of two new papers based on discoveries from the ground-breaking Scottish Natural Heritage and University of Exeter satellite tracking project.

Back at sea level, the current resurgence in basking shark sightings is being translated into a growing ecotourism opportunity for commercial operators, particularly on the west coast of Scotland.

It’s worth remembering that the Sea of the Hebrides is one of the very few places in the world where this extraordinary creature can be seen at the surface on a regular basis, and the chance to see the world’s second largest fish (at up to 11m in length) is high on the bucket list of many nature enthusiasts.

With opportunity comes responsibility though. We need to ensure that our enthusiasm for encountering not just the basking shark, but whales, porpoises and dolphins, seals and seabirds does not turn into something that disturbs those same creatures. Ecotourism has to be sustainable; otherwise it may be no better in the long run than the other more harmful forms of exploitation that it has replaced.

Scotland’s seas are amongst the best for viewing wildlife: here visitors enjoy watching porpoises in Europe’s largest protected area for the species.

Happily this is recognised by all parties in Scotland, a nation that leads the way in marine matters by taking sustainability seriously. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the upcoming series of WiSe Courses that will take place at venues around Scotland in March. Experts from the field of research will join the WiSe instructors at one of the Master courses in Fort William (18 March) to cover the subject of the changing seas around us, and new entrants to the industry can learn the basics at Standard courses in Aberdeen (20 March) and Oban (25 March).

All attendees will learn about the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code at these events. This highly successful Code was first launched in 2006 and is currently being revised to bring it up-to-date. The Code offers more than just basic guidance in what is (and what is not) acceptable boat handling around marine life, but far more importantly explains why.  The combination of this simple enhancement, together with WiSe training, empowers boat operators far more and goes a long way towards that elusive goal – sustainability – that we would all like to see.

None of this would work, however, without the willingness of operators to take part, and it’s a measure of the maturity and responsibility of the marine ecotourism businesses that the vast majority of operators have attended a Wise course since its introduction in 2004. Partly, that may be because so many of them are wildlife enthusiasts themselves, who want to see and share Scotland’s wild wealth with others. But given that one of the main reasons cited by so many visitors to Scotland from around the world is that they come to see nature in the wild, then that commitment to the long-term health of the environment is a very good thing.

A small basking shark off the eastern coast of Holy Isle in the Clyde. © Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

A small basking shark off the eastern coast of Holy Isle in the Clyde. © Lisa Kamphausen/SNH

Returning to the basking shark, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the current enthusiasm for shark watching only came about in relatively recent times. In fact, the creature was actively hunted around Scotland from as early as the mid 1700’s in some of the same places that now support valuable ecotourism. During the early years the hunt was relatively small scale. But in the years around World War II a sudden upswing in numbers, combined with a dearth of edible oils and the introduction of the harpoon gun, saw a massive expansion of the hunt for a few short years. Soon a combination of falling oil prices, the exposed nature of the Sea of the Hebrides and the often wild weather on the west coast saw the collapse of the industry.

Which was, perhaps, just as well, or maybe there would be very few basking sharks left to support the economic and social benefits that come from their presence in our waters today.

The recovery in numbers in the Sea of the Hebrides now seems to be steadily increasing and the long-term way that those animals reside in the area has now been demonstrated beyond doubt. Hopefully this is something that we can all unite behind, to celebrate and sustain as our own gift, keeping that wonderful place populated with Sea Monsters for future generations to wonder over – as we have been lucky enough to do.


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