Keep your eye on the seas this weekend — the denizens of the deep have been making their presence felt in local waters.
First there was a series of sightings of bottlenose dolphins up and down local coastlines. Then a team from Northern Ireland Environment Agency had a close encounter with a five-foot minke whale which circled their boat.
And when they got back to dry land, it was to news that on the north coast at Portrush some 15 basking sharks had drawn close to shore.
Basking sharks — which can grow up to 11 metres in length and are the second largest fish in the world — are not unknown off the north coast but have rarely been seen in such numbers.
But it was only a few weeks ago that around 150 sharks were reported off Malin Head — and last weekend some of them descended on Portrush.
“On Saturday there were reports of up to 15 sharks off Ramore Head, West Bay and inside the Skerries by local fishermen, recreational sailors and people from conservation organisations,” NIEA marine biologist Gary Burrows said. “When I got there on Sunday there were five sharks and I saw one shark breaching twice just off north-west Ramore — that’s the first time a breaching has been locally reported.
“There was a lot of interest from people who were out on surf boards, kayaks, dinghies and we are urging people to be cautious, both for their own safety and to avoid the harassment of the shark.”
Though the sharks feed on plankton, Gary points out that the only case of a shark death in UK waters was in the 1930s when a basking shark capsized a dinghy.
Basking sharks have been fished for their liver, oil, meat, fins and cartilage — combined with their slow growth and low reproductive output this means they are now endangered in the North Atlantic.
“We often do get basking sharks off the north coast but what is exceptional this time is that the numbers of sharks are relatively high,” Mr Burrows said.
“One possibility is that over the weekend, with the inshore winds and a sea swell, plankton may well have been concentrated in some of the local bays.”
Boat users should be cautious in places where basking sharks have been seen breaching and are asked to adhere to the basking shark code of conduct, listed at www.baskingsharks.org.
Meanwhile, NIEA’s Joe Breen described his first up-close encounter with a minke whale north of the Skerries last weekend.
The juvenile whale appeared and disappeared a few times, then began tailing the boat and circling it, coming up close to look directly at the team members.
“I stared right into his eye. It was just stunning, one of those spiritual moments in your life,” Joe said.
“It lasted about five to 10 minutes, then it disappeared again. Then we came back in to shore and there were basking sharks off Portrush!”
Irish Whale and Dolphin Group member Ian Enlander is asking anyone who spots whales, dolphins, basking sharks or leatherback turtles to report their sightings at www.iwdg.ie.