Sharks of Cornwall

Cornwall Man-Eating Sharks?!

By . Last updated

Cornwall is home to a surprising variety of sharks but it is the so called man-eaters that attract all the attention. Many of the sharks found in British waters are described as predatory, and many of these certainly have the capability of inflicting injury on people, however, with no shark attacks ever reported in the UK there is probably nothing to worry about.

Blue Shark
Blue Sharks are common in Cornish waters

The predatory sharks that are found off the Cornish coast include the blue shark, porbeagle, thresher shark and the more notorious mako shark. A fairly rare summer visitor, the mako (Maori for man-eating) shark is not considered a threat in the colder waters of the north Atlantic as it doesn't reach the size of those found in the tropics. Capable of swimming at speeds of up to 45 mph (74 km/h) and with a fearsome array of teeth it is little surprise that the mako is related to the daddy of them all - the great white shark.

Despite the media hysteria, there has yet to be a widely confirmed great white sighting. The most recent sighting was off St Ives in July 2007 and made it onto the front cover of the Sun newspaper. What was witnessed was a shark apparently leaping out of the water chasing 2 dolphins off Porthmeor beach. However, experts believed it was more likely to be a porbeagle or even a mako. One of the photographs of a dorsal fin on the cover of the Sun definitely resembled a basking shark rather than anything dangerous.

Are there Great White sharks in Cornwall?
Are there Great White sharks in Cornwall?

Another reported great white sighting was back in August 1999 when a group of experienced fishermen off the coast of Padstow. It is possible there are great white sharks in the waters off Cornwall but like makos, they tend to remain offshore, hunting sea life, rather than humans.

You are far more likely to see one of Cornwall's huge, gentle, Basking Sharks than their more sinister counterparts.

Basking Sharks - Gentle Giants

Basking sharks are one of the most impressive and mysterious animals to be found along the Cornish coast. Measuring up to twelve meters, these gentle giants represent the largest fish in the UK and almost the world, second only to the Whale Shark. The animal was first described and named in 1765 from a specimen found in Norway.

Basking Shark
Basking Shark

The genus name Cetorhinus maximus comes from the Greek, ketos, which means marine monster, and rhinos, which means nose, and the Latin maximus, which means "greatest". Aside from the huge jaws-like dorsal fin the animals are characterised by their size (the largest accurately measured specimen came in at an astonishing 12.27 meters (over 40 feet) and weighed around 19 tons), their large, open mouth, through which they filter some 1-2,000 cubic meters of seawater every hour in order to feed on miniscule fish particles known as plankton, huge gill slits and foreboding colour - greyish brown to black.

The basking shark's surface feeding habit, large size and slow swimming speed make them highly vulnerable to injury through human activity and the shark is afforded full protection in UK waters under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). The Basking Shark's relationship to human beings has not always been so benign. For centuries the animals were fished for their liver oil, which was burned in lamps before the advent of petroleum – a single shark can provide two to four hundred gallons of oil! In some parts of the world basking sharks are still hunted for their fins and to make fish and animal food, and the species came close to extinction after the Canadian Fisheries Department ordered a mass cull in the 1950s.

Shark Watching
Shark Watching

Although the population has never fully recovered, it is thought that numbers are on the rise, but there is still very little accurate information about these mysterious animals - it remains unclear where these highly migratory animals go during the wintertime, for example, although they can usually be spotted off the coast of Cornwall between the months of April and October. Look out for a large and unmistakable dorsal fin slicing through the water in a menacing fashion! If you should wish to see these amazing animals up close be sure to go on a WiSe accredited wildlife watching trip in order to avoid unnecessary and illegal disturbance to them.

The next biggest shark found in Cornish waters is the endangered Porbeagle, which has long been a prize for fishermen, one of whom recently caught a record 450lb specimen, which he tagged and released back into the wild.