Go swimming with the world’s second-biggest shark

Basking sharks are the second-biggest fish in the oceans – and they’ve got the mouth to prove it.
By Will Gray

Being inches in front of an 8m-long, five-tonne fish with a gaping mouth the size of a car holds no fear for Cornish diver Charles Hood. He’s swum with more than 100 different basking sharks and is still here to tell the tale…

What are basking sharks?
They’re the world’s second largest fish after the whale shark. Unlike most sharks, they don’t have giant teeth - they have massive mouths and feed by opening them wide, filtering plankton, trapping it in their gillrakers and finally swallowing.

A basking shark swims by with his giant mouth wide open
Say hello to a basking shark © Charles Hood

What was your closest encounter?
I came within inches. I could feel the force of the water pressure when the tail swished past. But I wasn’t scared. The secret is to remain absolutely motionless and they actually come by very closely.

What’s it like looking down the mouth of a basking shark?
It’s amazing – but it takes a special technique to perfect. In the waters we swim in, the shark appears when it’s about 15m away. When I see it, I position myself on a collision course with it and then remain as still as I can. I have to hold my nerve, but I know it won’t hit me. They can detect my presence using water pressure.

How big is a basking shark's mouth?
How big is a basking shark’s mouth? This big © Neue Geist

And how big are they?
You don’t realise just how big until you see them in the water. When you’re four metres away from something that’s about 8m long with a mouth that looks 1.5m wide, it puts it in perspective.

Meet the guy who swims with Basking Sharks
A Basking shark can reach up to 8m in length © Charles Hood

Have you ever hit one?
No. Just when I think I may have found a shark that is ‘blind’ it veers away at the last minute. I’ve done this many, many times before and it is still awe-inspiring every time I get a perfect run.

Meet the guy who swims with Basking Sharks
A mouth close-up. Room for a lot of plankton! © Charles Hood

Has anyone ever been sucked up by one of these?
They have massive mouths, but no, they don’t swallow large items and in fact they’re so sensitive to foreign objects they will move away to avoid them. They are generally slow movers but can react incredibly quickly if they need to, even breaching clear out of the water.

What is the scariest moment you have had swimming with them?
I’ve never felt scared – they are gentle giants – but the most exhilarating encounter I had was in 2008 when we had about 400 sharks out at sea. You could see black fins in every direction.

Meet the guy who swims with Basking Sharks
Meet basking shark swimmer Charles Hood © Charles Hood

Have you built up any kind of natural rapport with them?
No. They are fish and not mammals so they have very little intelligence. I see a few sharks I recognise sometimes but I’m pretty sure they don’t remember me.

How did you get into it?
When I was diving back in the ’80s I’d see them from the boat. I wanted to get a photograph of one and so just took the risk and went for a swim. I knew they were plankton eaters, so thought it would be ok.

Meet the guy who swims with Basking Sharks
Water passes through the gills © Charles Hood

And what’s the attraction now?
Lots of photographers and TV programmes want to capture them so for the past 10 years I’ve been running filming and photographic trips to do that.

Do the basking sharks ever attack?
Not to my knowledge. There have been a few recorded fatalities though. One involved a breaching shark landing on a small boat. The other was way back in the ’50s, when the navy tried to blow one up by attaching explosives to it. The problem arose when the shark swam back and went under their boat just as the explosives detonated.

Where and when is it best to see them?
Cornwall. They usually arrive in mid-May and peak in June. After that they can then be found in the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and then Scotland by late summer. But it’s best in Cornwall as they are usually concentrated in a relatively small area.

To find out more about swimming with Basking Sharks go to his website.

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