So we get a lot of interesting things washing up on the beaches here on Skye. Not only have we got a lot of coastline, we’ve also got a lot of activity going on in the surrounding waters.
Looking for shells and seaweed at Coral Beach
Some flotsam and jetsam can be beautiful; rare shells, pieces of old ship or historic kitchenware.
More often it’s a frustrating mixture of throwaway plastics and discarded or lost fishing gear (grrrr!)
Every now and again it’s something more interesting…
Last week we found one of the most unusual things I’ve come across: the remains of a rare ocean giant…
About a month ago there had been reports from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme of a possible minke whale carcass washing up nearby in North Skye (marine mammal medics and SMASS volunteers often go out to investigate reported strandings to identify and record data on the animals that wash up on our local coastlines).
A friend had agreed to have a look for it but they couldn’t safely find it.
We assumed it had been washed back out to sea.
A minke whale carcass found near Elgol, South Skye (photo by skye-birds.com)
That was until my landlord, Donnie, mentioned seeing some bird activity over a pile of large bones from his boat.
On hearing this, Rob and I armed ourselves with cameras and a tape measure and set off for another investigation. The tall basalt columns of the cliffs can be dangerous (and neither of us are particularly brave around precipitous heights!) but with the added safety of being in a pair we were able to look more thoroughly than before.
Eventually, with me holding on to the back of Rob’s jacket whilst he peered over the edge, we found it.
Rob at the top of the cliffs
It was not what we expected…
A very clean spine. None of the usual bird activity. A bearable smell.
( You usually catch a whiff of these things before you see them. I once went to identify a long washed-up minke…
The rotten blubber looked like a giant, formless mass of old chewing gum and the stench was unbelievable. It took weeks to get the Eau de Dead Whale out of my clothes.)
The thing we noticed first was the vertebrae, even from a distance we could see that the bones of the spine were perfectly round, not winged like mammals have. It looked like one of those strings of floats you get for dividing lanes in swimming pools.
This was a very big… fish!
Measuring the individual vertebrae
To reach the remains took careful navigation down a steep cliff path and an hour of scrambling over car-sized boulders skirting the shore. It’s not surprising it was hard to find.
Beetroot-faced and breathing heavily we reached the little beach.
It was easy to identify the species… a basking shark.
Baskers are the second largest fish in the world (after whale sharks). They are gentle giants who arrive in the Hebrides each summer when the warm currents are full of plankton, their main food source.
There was once a lucrative business in capturing basking sharks here for oil. Their numbers plummeted and they are now listed as a IUCN ‘Vulnerable’ species and are legally protected (yay!)
Watching my first basking shark at Rubha Hunish
I look forward to spotting them when they arrive each year (I wrote about my first sighting here)
The ones I’ve seen have all been relatively small (3-4m max) but they can grow up to 28ft (8m) long!
Now, upon seeing this skeleton, the most awe-inspiring thing was the size.
The spine that had looked teeny-tiny from the clifftops stretched to over 14ft in length. …and that was only a part of it; the rest lay about the beach, scattered by birds.
Rob with the scattered skeleton
We found 94 vertebrae in total. The biggest ones were as wide and thick as a muscleman’s neck.
When we put the measurements of all the pieces together we worked out that the length of the shark would have been over 24 feet long (and that’s probably with a lot missing!)
The vertebrae up close. It’s believed that, like a tree, the age of the shark can be determined by the number of rings
The rest of the skeleton was mostly bits of unfamiliar cartilaginous shapes; most pieces as long and thick as my arm.
The scavengers had feasted, meticulously cleaning off all the flesh and leaving perfect off-white pieces. We had them to thank for the (almost) lack of smell.
Aside from the spine, the other most identifiable pieces were two fins, probably pectoral. Again, it was their size that was striking, two great white wings.
It was a strange-looking skeleton.
Historic incidents of washed-up basking sharks have led to many stories of sea monsters… The way they decompose led to people thinking they were modern-day plesiosaurs, Nessie-like creatures with long necks and big flippers.
The most famous cases are the Zuiyo-maru carcass and the Stronsay Beast; two stories well worth a read if, like me, you find that kind of stuff interesting.
Even picked clean, it was unusual.
Sharks have cartilaginous skeletons meaning that these pieces were not bone; they had a translucence and slight wobble when moved.
Unlike a fish or whale it was hard to know which bit was which or what went where. It felt truly alien.
A mystery piece. Could this be a part of the jaw?
Whilst it’s sad that such an incredible animal no longer graces our local waters, it was a fascinating thing to investigate.
The even sadder thing, for me, was to find the skeleton surrounded by plastic water bottles. Whilst it’s unlikely that it was this litter that caused the shark’s demise, it was a sorry sight.
We took away a rubbish bag filled almost entirely with discarded bottles.
Plastic on the beaches is a constant problem
We left the remains as they were. As a protected species, they were not for us to move. The quickly-decomposing ‘bones’ would be reclaimed by the sea soon enough.
That evening we sent our report with measurements and photos to SMASS.
Washed up shark carcasses aren’t common so hopefully the information will go towards helping learn more about these incredible creatures.
It’s now coming towards the end of the shark season on Skye.
There still haven’t been any sighting here in North Skye this summer (which makes this skeleton even more curious) but I’ll be making sure that I get to see a live one before the year is out…
At the beginning of October I’ll be heading down to Mull to take part on a research trip with Basking Shark Scotland. I can’t wait… It was fascinating to see this skeleton but nothing beats the magic of seeing a real, living shark.