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Aerial survey finds sharks in Cornwall's waters (but no great whites!)

Recent surveys around Cornwall's coast have revealed the presence of large numbers of giant basking sharks. Scientists from the University of Exeter's Tremough Campus and Marine Conservation Society (MCS) spotted 18 sharks off south-west Cornwall in just two hours on Friday 10 August.

"It is wonderful to witness the return of these spectacular animals around our coastline," said Peter Richardson, MCS Species Policy Officer and post-graduate student at the University of Exeter's Tremough Campus. "During the aerial survey we also saw common dolphins, which, along with the basking sharks have been mistaken for great white sharks during the recent media feeding frenzy. We didn't expect to see great white sharks and needless to say we didn't spot any!"

The University of Exeter and MCS aerial surveys are invested in by Objective One through the European Social Fund, with additional support from MCS and PADI Project AWARE. Friday's aerial survey also detected sunfish, and previous surveys have recorded bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises and grey seals. Through the aerial surveys, the team hopes to understand the distribution and seasonality of the different species of wildlife using Cornwall's waters, and also inform the local marine wildlife watching industry that is fast becoming a local tourism attraction.

"These basking shark sightings indicate that Cornish waters are an important summer hotspot for this protected species. Basking sharks have become a significant tourist attraction for Cornwall, but anyone wishing to see these amazing animals should go with a WiSe-accredited wildlife watching trip in order to avoid unnecessary and illegal disturbance to them," said Dr Ruth Leeney, researcher at the University of Exeter's Tremough Campus.

The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest fish in the sea, much larger than a great white, growing in excess of 11m and weighing up to 7 tonnes. They are regular visitors to British coasts, where each summer they return to feed harmlessly on inshore plankton blooms. Since 1987, MCS has run a separate project, 'Basking Shark Watch', which encourages public reporting of basking sharks. In the last 20 years MCS has accumulated over 10,500 public sightings of basking sharks in UK waters, but no confirmed reports of great white sharks. Last week, MCS Basking Shark Watch received several basking shark reports from Cornish waters, with one sailor reporting large groups of sharks between Land's End and the Scilly Isles on Thursday. On Friday observers at the National Coastwatch Institution at Bass Point, Lizard saw 19 sharks, while over the weekend Seawatch SW recorded 14 shark sightings at Gwennap Head near Land's End.

Basking sharks are protected under national law and while MCS encourages the public to report their sightings, they also warn people not to get too close to the gentle giants.

For more information or photographs contact Peter Richardson, Species Policy Officer, Marine Conservation Society (MCS) telephone 01989 566017/ 07793 118383 or email; or Sarah Hoyle, Press Officer, University of Exeter, telephone 01392 262062 or email

The Objective One Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly has invested in the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC) project, both Phase 1 and Phase 2, through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF). University of Exeter is a partner of the CUC.


Editor's notes:

The £100 million Tremough Campus is a Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative of which the University of Exeter and University College Falmouth are two of the founding partners. It is funded mainly by the European Union (Objective One), the South West Regional Development Agency, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with support from Cornwall County Council. Set in 70 acres of countryside, but close to the waterside towns of Penryn and Falmouth, the campus offers a lively student community. The University of Exeter now offers degrees in Biology, Cornish Studies, English, Geology, Geography, History, Law, Mining Engineering, Politics and Renewable Energy on its Tremough Campus, which has expanded rapidly as part of the Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is the UK charity dedicated to the protection of our seas, shores and wildlife. MCS campaigns for clean seas and beaches, sustainable fisheries, protection of marine life and their habitats, and the sensitive use of our marine resources for future generations. Through education, community involvement and collaboration, MCS raises awareness of the many threats that face our seas and promotes individual, industry and government action to protect the marine environment. MCS provides information and guidance on many aspects of marine conservation and produces the annual Good Beach Guide (, the Good Fish Guide and on sustainable seafood, as well as promoting public participation in volunteer projects and surveys such as Beachwatch, Adopt-a-Beach and Basking Shark Watch. MCS Basking Shark Watch has been running since 1987. Anyone who wants to participate in Basking Shark Watch can also contact MCS to receive free sightings report cards and posters, or report sightings online at

Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest fish in the sea. The species' name refers to its habit of swimming just beneath the sea surface, as if basking in the sun. The basking shark is primarily coastal-pelagic, occurring in the temperate waters of continental shelves of the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. The species is migratory, and makes highly seasonal appearances around the UK, usually between April and October. It is most commonly sighted off the coasts of Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Scotland. No estimates presently exist for global or regional population sizes. The basking shark's surface feeding habit, large size and slow swimming speed make this species highly vulnerable to human-induced mortality from bycatch, boat strike and disturbance. The basking shark is afforded full protection in UK waters under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).

The National Coastwatch Institute is a voluntary organisation that runs several coastal observation points along the Cornish coast, where observers keep a look out for sea-users in distress in order to more quickly facilitate their rescue. For more information see

The SeaWatch SW Project is an exciting new initiative designed to collect important information about some of the UK's most threatened marine animals, including Basking Sharks, Ocean Sunfish and the critically endangered Balearic Shearwater. The results will provide new insights into the occurrence and behaviour of these species around our coasts, and how we can protect them while they visit our waters. The project is entirely volunteer-based, and is being supported by a number of major conservation and scientific organisations, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). For more information see

Cornwall Wildlife Trust (CWT) is a partner in the coalition of The Wildlife Trusts, 47 local Trusts throughout the UK, which form the leading charitable conservation body exclusively dedicated to wildlife. CWT is a registered charity with offices in Truro, and manages nature reserves and volunteers throughout the whole of the county. CWT organises a wide range of wildlife-related events and activities. CWT believes that involving people in our work is essential to the future of nature conservation in Cornwall. For more information contact Ruth Williams or Joana Doyle, Marine Conservation Officers, Cornwall Wildlife Trust on tel: 01872 240777,

The WiSe scheme has been set up to deliver training and accreditation for operators of registered passenger and charter vessels who wish to view marine wildlife. Nearly 500 operators/marine professionals have now been trained. All WiSe operators have attended and passed a course designed to ensure they have an understanding of how to approach marine wildlife, and how to minimise any disturbance to those animals. For more information see


Clare Morgan
Media Relations Manager
Objective One Partnership Office
Castle House
Pydar Street
Truro TR1 2UD
Mobile: 07973 813647
Telephone: 01872 223439

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