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Swimmers advised to 'social distance' from 30-foot sharks filmed off Irish coast

The world's second-largest sharks are visiting Ireland's coastline, but swimmers and boaters are advised to keep a respectful distance from the 'gentle giants'

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A basking shark swimming in Keem Bay, Achill Island. Screengrab: Seán Molloy

A basking shark swimming in Keem Bay, Achill Island. Screengrab: Seán Molloy

A basking shark swimming in Keem Bay, Achill Island. Screengrab: Seán Molloy

As many as nine basking sharks have been filmed swimming off Achill Island, with one believed to be up to nine metres (30 feet) in length.

"The numbers have been steadily rising and sightings have become much more frequent in recent years," says local Seán Molloy, who shot some spectacular drone footage at Keem Bay (below) last week.

"Former shark fisherman, Brian McNeil, estimates that these sharks are above average size with one particularly large one, well over 30 feet or nine metres," Molloy told the Irish Independent.

Capable of growing up to 10-12m in length, basking sharks are the world's second-largest fish (after the whale shark), and can be seen feeding off the Irish coast from April to August.

This year, the sharks have been spotted from the coast of Co Waterford to Kerry, Clare, the Aran Islands and Mayo, according to the Irish Basking Shark Project (IBSP), a group of research studies.

"With the fine weather of sunshine and calm seas (and maybe with people a little more attuned to nature in these unprecedented times), there seem to be more sightings than usual, and for a longer period," it says.

Although basking sharks are plankton feeders, and generally harmless to humans, their arrival has prompted it to recommend swimmers, boaters and kayakers to practise "social distancing" if they happen upon the animals, and for others to safely observe from the shore.

“For basking sharks, the recommended social distancing is four meters, not the two meters as required by our species," says Dr Simon Berrow of the IBSP.

"While you should never approach basking sharks, there is a chance that they may approach you," he adds.

If this happens, his advice is to watch from a respectful distance: “Don't follow or try and touch them, and enjoy the incredible privilege of being close to one of nature’s gentle giants."

Basking sharks are listed by the ICUN as a "endangered" species, and members of the public can contribute to research by reporting any sightings.

Irish names include liop an dá lapa ("unwieldy beast with two fins") and liamhán gréine or liabán gréine ("great fish of the sun"), and historically, Keem Bay was the site of one of the world's largest basking shark fisheries.

The last shark was caught locally in 1984.

"Like most other islanders, I love to see them coming back each year, especially in such large numbers," says Molloy, who lives nearby in Dooagh and has been working on the 'Stories from Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way' project, a series of some 70 short stories filmed along the coast last summer.

"When I was young the sharks were here, but were still being fished and the only ones that I ever saw as a child were those that had been captured and were awaiting processing at nearby Purteen Harbour.

"Their proximity to the shore in recent days has given people the opportunity to see them up close from the nearby banks.

"Everybody’s first thought is how large they really are."

The tourism potential of animals like basking sharks has been mooted in the past, but for now, the IBSP recommends people remain within their 5km and look forward to future sightings.

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