Cornwall is a land steeped in legend and myth. Tales of King Arthur, giants, and Pixies abound. Fishermen tell stories of glimpsing the rooftops of the fabled land of Lyonesse which is said to have sunk beneath the waves. But amongst these tales of magic and chivalry one mythical beast still roams the Cornish coastline. Each year for about a month in early summer the striking black fins of Basking sharks can be seen from the cliff tops. When the sun begins to warm the ocean during April and May, planktonic life rises to the surface and following it comes the largest fish of northern seas. In the hope of photographing this event I drove down to Porthkerris on the southern coast of Cornwall and signed up with Porthkerris Divers who have been running Basking Shark trips for the last nine years.
Getting to the tiny bay of Porthkerris is an adventure in itself as the roads are barely wide enough for one vehicle. Arriving at the dive shop I boarded Porthkerris' catamaran the Celtic Cat and the search began. We motored up the coast in search of the telltale black sails of Basking sharks and within half an hour we had spotted our first basker.
Captain and owner Mike Anselmi explained the drill. "We'll drop you in upstream from the sharks as they cruise along feeding on the plankton and once in the water we'll shout out to you which way to swim"
sounded simple enough. So, camera at the ready I stood on the swim step and waited for the signal to jump. As I entered the water a rush of bubbles momentarily blinded me and I instinctively dropped below them scanning the depths for the dark shape of a shark. Immediately I gagged from the water pouring in through my regulator and then my mind cleared, Oh yeah, its strictly snorkel only as the bubbles of scuba scare the sharks away. Surfacing, I hunted for fins and turning towards the boat I watched the wild gesticulations of the crew as they urged me to swim full tilt on a path intersecting with the approaching shark. It’s at this point that I realised that Mike had neglected to mention the olympic athletic requirement in order to actually reach the sharks whilst wearing a full drysuit, thirty pounds of lead, and dragging a large unwieldy camera housing with strobe arms set for maximum drag.
Spying the fin in the distance I changed up a gear and thrashed madly towards it. Apparently they dont like madly thrashing creatures heading towards them and the basker made a leisurely turn and with a flick of its tail nonchalantly slipped away. I looked on filled with resentment. Relaxing in the water to regain my breath I again heard wild shouts from the boat and turning around spotted a dorsal fin snaking past me. Submerging I clicked away on the shutter feverishly until the Basker was just a gray smudge at the edge of visibility. Reviewing my images it was obvious that this was going to be harder than it looked.
Returning to the boat we searched on, criss-crossing slicks of plankton in our path. Again the cry went up and the Celtic Cat pulled into position in the path of another giant. This time I pushed my way through the waves saying to myself "Thrash quietly" and estimating the sharks direction I snuck below the surface and tried to meet it head on. My lungs screamed as the basker crept forward. "Keep swimming" I told myself "you can breathe all you want to later". Lunging forward into the sharks personal space it began to curve away and I snapped away first taking in its gaping white maw, then its monstrous dorsal fin and flank, and finally its broad and powerful tail. Desperately I kicked upwards and filled up with cool fresh air. "Hey, that wasn’t so hard" I lied to myself.
The sharks then dropped off the radar and estimating that they had moved deeper with the changing tide we dropped anchor in a sandy bay and drank tea whilst we waited for the sharks to relocate.
Heading vaguely back to port we spotted a group of three or four baskers feeding in the shallows close to shore. Back in the water I headed for a lobster bouy that the sharks seemed to occasionally pass as though using it as a reference point. I waited watching the fins turn this way and that until finally one enormous shark headed in my direction. Feeling calm and collected I was able to breathe out and slip silently down to its level composing its portrait as I decended. It performed beautifully for the camera and gave me a series of great shots before sidling off in search of richer pickings. Turning around to watch it go I was greeted by the second basker swimming towards me from the other direction. Again I submerged and this time I was suprised to see that the third basker was on its tail feeding in the concentrated stream of plankton created by its wake. I think I froze in indecision as to which shark to train my camera on and trying hard to remain composed I snapped away in both directions as the giants slipped by. Fighting the urge to kick heavily upwards I floated slowly to the surface and stocked up on valuable 02. Then scanning the surrounding water I was amazed to see that the sharks were now using me as their refernce point and all three were turning and heading back towards me. From the bridge of the Celtic Cat I could see that Mike was as surprised as myself and pulling the boat up as close as he dared he stood aloft grinning down at the amazing scene unfolding in the water below. Repeatedly I submerged trying to catch one of the baskers head on but they instinctively turned away before I could get close enough for the quintissential mouth agape image and finally after inumerable passes they failed to return. At that point I would have been happy if the boat had left me there overnight just incase they came back but I was beckoned aboard and sat in a heap on the deck reliving the moment. Mike told me it was the best opportunity he had ever witnessed in the whole time he had been running Basking Shark charters. I felt honoured.
On the way back to Porthkerris the last and largest of our nine baskers briefly showed up and jumping into the cloudy waters one last time I was dismayed to realize that this shark was so big that from my vantage point it was impossible to fit in my framer. So, lowering my camera I watched it slowly sweep by me on its never ending quest for plankton.
The next day the weather blew and although we found a few basking sharks they quickly dropped out of sight and I began to realise the extent of the gift I had recieved the previous day. Returning to shore I contented myself by diving with slender catsharks less than two feet long but as I focused on their tiny bodies my mind was filled with Cornish giants.