Thursday, August 02, 2007

Great White shark visits the UK coast!

Thousands of pairs of binoculars were trained on the inshore waters of Cornwall yesterday as holidaymakers, lifeguards, fishermen and rubber-neckers scanned the waves for signs of great white sharks cruising Britain's most popular holiday coast.

Not a normal summer activity, it had been prompted by lurid tabloid reports that a suspected great white had been seen hunting dolphins off St Ives. By nightfall, no Carcharodon carcharias had been seen, not a surfer had been bitten in half, nor even so much as a lilo punctured. Amity Island, the resort so effectively depopulated by sharks in the film Jaws, this was not.

The great, if fruitless, shark hunt had begun after holidaymaker Nick Fletcher captured images of what he thought was a great white while filming dolphins 200 yards off St Ives. The Sun reported his "find" under the headline "The Cornish Jaws" and quoted several experts who viewed Mr Fletcher's footage and declared that the shark was definitely a predatory species and a great white could not be ruled out.

Scepticism quickly kicked in. Douglas Herdson, marine biologist from the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, said: "The great white is now so rare, that the chance of them turning up along the British coast is slim. It's not impossible, but it's very unlikely. Often people only get a glimpse of the animal and, because they have an expectation that it's a great white, they make assumptions that can't be backed up."

Marc Thomas, duty watch manager at Falmouth Coastguard, said: "The last thing we need is scare-mongering over some footage. There has never been a confirmed sighting of a great white off the Cornish coast. We get basking sharks and the odd sighting of a porbeagle shark which looks similar to a great white, but they are a lot smaller." He said rare sightings of mako or porbeagles were hundreds of miles offshore and added: "It's not like there are swarms of them around the Cornish coast."

The Great St Ives Shark Scare is not the first alleged sighting of a great white in UK waters. There have been nine or 10 in the past decade, mostly from Scottish or Cornish waters. In Continental Europe they are regularly seen in the Mediterranean off Italy, Spain and Malta. The nearest confirmed location to Britain was a great white caught off La Rochelle in 1977.

Meanwhile, one sighting of a large sea creature that was sadly real was of a northern bottlenose whale that swam into the River Orwell near Ipswich and became stranded. Crowds gathered on Friday to watch divers try to coax the 15ft juvenile whale back to the North Sea. When that failed, the whale was humanely destroyed.


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