In mythology they are the guardians of the sea, but yesterday one of their number thrashed slowly and sadly to his death on a Scottish beach.
Animal welfare officers battled for hours to save a basking shark, a rare visitor to Scotland’s eastern shores, but he was too badly injured.
The young fish died hundreds of miles from his usual home as the rescuers waited for a specialist vet to euthanise him.
The shark had first struggled onto the sand at Fisherrow, a sweeping bay in Musselburgh, some time after 8am and residents awoke to see the drama unfold before them.
Heather Walker’s husband, Michael, waded out to the shark with their one-year-old son, Ben, in his arms.
She said: “We looked out and I saw some fins slapping about and I said to my husband, ‘There’s something out there’.
“It was flopping about. He said it was a basking shark so I called the Scottish SPCA.”
The SSPCA, marine mammal medics, and Dr Mauvis Gore, a basking shark expert, arrived as crowds began to gather on the shoreline.
Throughout the morning, the 3.2metre-long fish was freed from the sands on a number of occasions before beaching one last, fatal time.
Stuart Davenport, a marine mammal medic, said the shark had been wounded.
“It’s very unusual,” he said. “It’s very difficult to see what’s happened. From looking at it, it looks like it’s been hit by something. It will have got disorientated by what’s happened and come into shore.”
Dr Gore runs Project Basking Shark, based at Marine Conservation International in Newton, Midlothian, which monitors the fish and attempts to raise public awareness.
She said: “This is extremely unusual to have on this coast – I have only had maybe three in the past four or five years and most have been dead.
“They don’t come up here so whether there’s not enough food, I don’t know.”
Alison Holstead, 40, watched the rescue from the beach with her four-year-old daughter, Elsie-May.
She said: “We were on the promenade cycling and we noticed it was beached up. The marine guy was here with it, so we came and had a look and started to ask questions.”
A crowd of about 50, including many children watched from the sand.
But by mid-afternoon, it was clear to the experts there was no chance of survival for the young fish and they called in a specialist vet to end his life. However, the fish died as they waited.
Stuart Murray, West Lothian senior inspector with the SSPCA, said afterwards: “They’re pretty much doomed when they come in like that. They beach themselves and it’s time up.”
The shark will go to the Scottish Agricultural College in Inverness for examination.
NEW NORTH SEA SIGHTING
ALTHOUGH the beaching in Musselburgh was extremely rare – as basking sharks are usually found on the west coast of Scotland – a group of four were sighted in the Moray Firth yesterday.
Nina Baumgartner, a PhD student, was carrying out research for the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit at Banff when she spotted the sharks in Spey Bay.
Ms Baumgartner, 29, said: “It is a recent phenomenon to see so many basking sharks up in this area.
“There are no published results on why they are doing this but it seems as though they are following the plankton.
“It is probably down to global warming but currents could be moving the plankton north.”
Charlie Phillips of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society agreed the sighting was unusual.
He said: “You’re very lucky to see one basking shark in the Moray Firth, let alone four. They are more likely on the west coast. It is great that they are here, as they are gentle animals and are just great to see.”