During those long, cold and dark winter months it’s nice to get away for a while and chase the sun: Basking sharks certainly agree. In a gut-wrenching blow to Brexiters, scientists have found for the first time that Britain's sharks head off to Portugal, Spain and North Africa to escape the winter chill of the North Atlantic.
Using satellite tracking technology, scientists at the University of Exeter were able to solve a mystery about what these giants get up to during winter. It was previously thought that, like good, loyal British fish, they hibernate off the coasts off the UK and Ireland. However, some attribute this to myth to a certain Mr. Farage.
But by tagging 70 sharks, and gaining long-term information from 28 of those, they found that many either stay in or around the UK or migrate down to Spain, Portugal and the tip of Africa. Some were also found to nestle down in the Bay of Biscay.
A basking shark feeding. Image by Philip Doherty, University of Exeter.
Dr Matthew Witt, of the University of Exeter, says that why the sharks migrate isn’t entirely clear, as it could be for “mating, searching for foraging grounds and finding water of preferred temperature.” Whether or not individuals stick to the same winter holiday spot is also unknown, he says.
New information on where the sharks go is an important step in ensuring their conservation, according to Dr Suzanne Henderson, of Scottish National Heritage. She says that the research has confirmed the Sea of the Hebrides as an important destination in the migratory cycle for basking sharks, adding weight to calls to make it a Marine Protected Area.
Basking sharks are the second-largest fish species in the world, and although they are considered “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List, the populations in the north-east Atlantic are in fact endangered.
"This is essential information if we want to protect them, especially as they swim far outside UK waters, meaning any conservation efforts must be international.” lead author Philip Doherty, also at University of Exeter, explains. "In terms of man-made threat they may face, we tend to think of commercial fishing as the only danger to these animals, but other issues such as boat strike, marine litter, civil engineering and ocean noise might also have an effect."
Although one part of the basking shark puzzle has now been revealed, it’s clear that what this giant does when on its chilltime still needs to be uncovered. Whether or not the deserting basking sharks will be allowed back in once the Brexit door closes is somewhat less of a mystery.