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Searching for Basking Sharks in Scotland's Hebridean Islands

As the days draw shorter my summer of wildlife watching in the Hebrides has come to an end. Months of watching the sea, navigating the forecast, wild swimming on some of Scotland's most remote beaches and swimming with one of the worlds most elusive giants - the mighty basking shark. Back home from a summer spent on the Isle of Coll, a tranquil island paradise situated in Scotland's Inner Hebrides, I've finally some time to reflect on another summer of cold water adventures. 

Where is the Isle of Coll?

Many of you won't be familiar with the Isle of Coll, a lesser known gem sitting on the edge of the Inner Hebrides, west of its much busier neighbour the Isle of Mull. With a permanent population of around 200 people, Coll is where you would come for a quiet life, idyllic empty beaches and some of the best star gazing opportunities in the UK. Though all of this is lovely, this is not the reason I visit Coll each summer. 

The Isle of Coll by Rachel Brooks Art

The waters surrounding the Isles of Coll and Tiree come to life during the summer months, as the water warms after the winter months plankton blooms feed a variety of wildlife which can be sighted in the Hebrides each summer. And one which I have a particular interest in, the basking shark. 

Where can I see basking sharks in the Hebrides? 

In 2020 the promise of swimming with giants brought me to Scotlands West Coast, a decision I never looked back on. With the beauty of the towering highlands as a backdrop to the thriving waters, the Hebrides is a place like no other. The basking shark is an endangered species of plankton eating shark, an unusual trait amongst shark species with only three known sharks feeding this way. Basking sharks can be sighted off the west coast of Scotland through the summer from May - October, but it is the peak of the summer when you have the best opportunity to see their impressive fins breaking the surface. 

Basking Shark in the Hebrides by Rachel Brooks
Scotland's summer months provide a perfect feeding opportunity for the basking shark, and possibly an important breeding ground. The Sea of the Hebrides has historic connections to this interesting fish, fisheries for the sharks oil were once a booming industry on the islands, which unfortunately saw an estimated 150,000 individuals removed from the population. Now protected these gentle giants still grace our shores in much smaller numbers, this area has been designated as a marine protected area which will hopefully provide greater protection for this recovering species. 
There is the potential to spot the fin of a basking shark through the Western Isles and Northern Scotland through the summer, though undoubtedly the best place to see them is the Isles of Coll and Tiree. Research has shown glimpses in to just how special this area could be for the basking shark, with rare and unusual social behaviours being observed here during the summer aggregation. Witnessing shark breaches, mating scars and close following behaviour is not a rare sight in a usual summer on the island. Researchers caught a snapshot of similar aggregations also occurring on the seabed of the Gunna Sound. Whilst the breeding and pupping sites for basking sharks remain unknown, it is suspected that the aggregation of sharks found here during the summer may hold some significance in this puzzle. 
Snorkelling in the Hebrides by Rachel Brooks Art

Can I swim with basking sharks in Scotland?

Now if spotting the gargantuan fin of a basking shark from the shore is not enough for you, there is an opportunity to get a closer look. It involves some hard yards of searching and embracing the chilly waters of the open Atlantic, but you can (if lucky!) see one of these beautiful animals beneath the waves with Basking Shark Scotland. 

I've been guiding trips with Basking Shark Scotland since 2020, my first summer in the Hebrides blew me away, we saw sharks almost daily and the waters were so productive the fish were bubbling on the surface. However, nature works in mysterious ways and my last two summers out on the islands have been both different again. Spending time in the water with a basking shark is one of the most incredible marine encounters I've had to date, seeing a positively prehistoric creature almost the size of a bus swim by you is certainly a memory that stays with you. A memory that keeps me searching for these giants year after year. 

The Cairns of Coll by Rachel Brooks

The Wild Atlantic

Though island life sounds peaceful, it is not without its challenges. Situated on the edge of the Atlantic with only the distant Outer Hebrides for shelter the sea here can be unrelenting. A wildness we experienced this summer, while the rest of the country basked in a worrying heatwave Coll sat beneath a cloud of wind and rain for weeks, making spotting wildlife on the surface a little more complicated!

Between the storms we were treated to the full delights of the Hebrides, with calm seas and sunny days this is where the magic really happens. During the summer months the Sea of the Hebrides hosts a number of cetacean species but the ones you have the most chance to see are minke whales and common dolphins. The latter of which lifts the soul on every sighting!

Common Dolphins in the Inner Hebrides

Through my third summer on Coll we saw a number of basking sharks as well as the usual suspects - porpoises, seals and a countless amount of seabirds, we were also fortunate to see some exciting visitors too! A humpback whale which was bubble net feeding and my favourite species to see here - orca. 

The West Coast Community is suspected to be a functionally extinct ecotype of orca, with only the two males from the pod being sighted in recent years. Seeing these rare orca is incredibly special, a sighting which has inspired much of my Hebridean art. John Coe and Aquarius are the names of the two remaining bulls, a sad tale which I will detail in the future, whilst some people go their lives searching for these animals I feel very blessed to have seen them each year I have been at sea in Scotland. 

John Coe the Orca by Rachel Brooks

The 2 metre high dorsal fin of John Coe with its distinctive notch is a sight that will always fill me with a range of emotion, whilst beyond excited there is always a mixture of sadness knowing the fate of these animals. Nevertheless this has to be the highlight of my summer at sea here in the Hebrides. 

As we head in to the autumn I can already feel the drop in temperature as the leaves start to fall from the trees, out on the islands the seals will be howling as the new fluffy white pups arrive and life on Coll will quieten down as the summers visitors both human and wild depart for another year. 





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