THE WATERS off county Clare are once again the focus of attention for eye-opening marine life action.
Last week, a group of scuba divers observed a large gathering of Basking Sharks engaged in what is believed to be courtship behaviour and in doing so, captured some amazing footage.
Little is known about the behaviour of the giant creatures, the second largest fish in the sea and, like many, sadly now an endangered species.
The man responsible for the footage Mark O’Leary of UL Sub Aqua Club was on a dive with friends from Kilkee Sub Aqua Club when the opportunity arose to film the graceful creatures.
Mark told The Champion this week that he and his friends had been planning a regular dive when some jet skiers told them at Kilkee pier that there were Basking Sharks in the area, so the group deliberately went out looking for them.
“We found them pretty fast in around 70 metres of water,” said Mark, “we saw their fins on the surface and we decided to go in for a dive with them first, so we put on our scuba gear and got in.
“Bear in mind it is in fairly deep water, we wouldn’t normally go below 30 metres unless we had special mixes of gas so recreational diving is 30 metres and they were in 70 metres.
“We went in diving with them anyway and were in with them for about 10-15 minutes and they started descending with us and they went too deep, so we decided to come back up and go back to the boat.
“We waited a few minutes until they came back up in the same spot and took off our gear and went in snorkelling instead so we wouldn’t disturb them and we were in with them then for about 40 minutes, just looking at them cruising around doing their courting or whatever it is they do.”
This particular behaviour has come to light in recent years as marine biologists and other experts, working with improved footage and tracking equipment, have greater access and insight into sharks’ lives.
Mark and his colleagues on the dive were aware of what they were observing, he says, having watched Ken O’Sullivan’s documentary some years back about Ireland’s ‘Life Aquatic’.
O’Sullivan was among the first to observe this behaviour among Basking Sharks off Ireland’s coast in his film ‘Ireland’s Deep Atlantic’.
“That was the first time I’ve seen a Basking Shark,” said Mark, “but most divers, when they see these sharks, they’d just be cruising around with their mouths open, feeding. These ones clearly weren’t doing that.
“Their mouths were all closed and they were there in huge numbers, at least 20 in that particular group, but probably more.
“There was only three or four on top, then three or four underneath that and they kept going down in this huge column, down further than what we could see, so it was pretty unique.
“We could see that they were doing something, so we were trying to give them leeway, I suppose, trying to stay to the side of them, but we ended up drifting right over them.”
The divers on checking the GPS estimated they were two and a half nautical miles (or 4km) out of Kilkee when they spotted this particular group.
Appetite whetted by this amazing experience, Mark, who admits to being excited when he sees so much as a lobster on his dives went out again on Saturday and on Sunday and observed something even more incredible.
“We saw six different groups, though we only went in with one of them. One group we found there was something else going on, they were all at the surface and weren’t moving in a circle, so we thought maybe they’d started mating and we decided to leave that group alone.
“We found another group close by had a snorkel with them for a while and on the way back counted six separate groups pretty close to each other, but in distinct groups and that was right outside Kilkee Bay, they were much closer to the shore, maybe 500 metres off George’s Head.”
Some of the small groups had 10, but others had at least 40, possibly more, he estimated, and this time they all seemed to be congregating near the surface, leading the group to believe something different was going on.
Given that global numbers of the species have been estimated to be as low as 10,000, this would appear an amazingly large gathering.
Despite the sharks’ huge size there was no trepidation, said Mark, who has dived all over the world, including with sharks.
“You know with Basking Sharks they’re harmless you’re pretty much in no danger, but our main concern would be not to interfere with them.
“We didn’t want to be on top of them or touching them or even going too close to them they’re slow moving but they’re still moving and they’re the size of a minibus, so when they come towards you it’s pretty hard to get out of the way.”
Mark was rich in his praise of the subaquatic experience off Clare’s coast, saying Kilkee had some of the best diving in Ireland.
There are up to 20 different spots to explore around the west Clare resort and it is in his opinion the main hub in this part of the island.
“People get into diving for different things, but for me it’s the landscapes, we’ve some unreal scenery under water here, some amazing cliffs, arches, walls, there are really cool landscapes under the water, especially Kilkee and Clare.”
Click here to see Burren Sub Aqua Club divers’ encounter with Dusty The Dolphin earlier this year