Secret lives of basking sharks caught on autonomous underwater camera

Scientists hope the new technology will help uncover behaviours about the elusive animals, which are found off the west coast of Scotland.

An autonomous “SharkCam” has been used in the UK for the first time as part of efforts to reveal the secret lives of basking sharks.

Scientists have now began tagging the sharks around the Inner Hebrides so an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) can follow them below the surface of the water.

Little is known about the world’s second largest fish – despite being prevalent in the waters off the west coast of Scotland.

Researchers hope the groundbreaking technology will uncover more about their underwater behaviour, social interactions, group behaviour and courtship of the species.

Suzanne Henderson, marine policy officer at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), said: “These giant fish are spectacular and watching them feed gracefully at the sea surface is such a special and memorable experience.

“This year’s collaboration has allowed us to use a combination of camera technologies and given us a glimpse of basking sharks’ underwater behaviour – a real first and very exciting.

Team deploys underwater camera
The team prepares to deploy an underwater robot camera to follow a tagged basking shark (Jane Morgan/WWF UK/PA)

“The footage has already made us reassess their behaviour, with the sharks appearing to spend much more time swimming just above the seabed than we previously thought.

“It really brings home why it’s so important that the species and its habitat are protected by designating the Sea of the Hebrides as a marine protected area (MPA).”

The REMUS SharkCam technology collects high-quality data and wide angle high-definition video of their behaviour from a distance by following the tagged fish.

Initial footage from the AUV deployed off the coast of Coll and Tiree in July shows the sharks moving through the water column, potentially searching for food, feeding near the surface and swimming close to the seabed.

Shark tag
Tags are put on the sharks so the underwater cameras can follow them (Nina Constable/PA)

Fieldwork took place in the proposed Sea of the Hebrides MPA – one of four possible protected areas currently under consultation by the Scottish Government.

MPAs are specially designated and managed to protect marine ecosystems, habitats and species.

It is suspected that basking sharks may even breed in Scotland – an event that has never before been captured on film.

The Inner Hebridean area is one of only a few areas worldwide where large numbers of basking sharks are found feeding in the surface waters each year.

Reserach team on boat
The team receiving data sent from the underwater robot camera (Jane Morgan/PA)

Jenny Oates, of WWF, said: “Our seas and coasts are home to some incredible wildlife.

“As our oceans come under increasing pressure, innovative technology like the REMUS SharkCam Robot can reveal our underwater world like never before and help to show why it must be protected.

“It is essential that we safeguard our seas, not just to enable magnificent species like basking sharks to thrive, but because all life on earth depends on our oceans.”

The project has been carried out by a collaboration of bodies including SNH, WWF and the University of Exeter.

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