Fishing Lines: Terror of the Scottish deep

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD have been the fishing story of the year. Television stations would have clamoured to interview me. The word "hero" would have featured frequently in articles. The Sun would have set up a picture of Melinda Messenger gazing adoringly into my eyes. Mayors would have offered me the freedom of the town. Instead, it's just another story of the one that got away.

Carcharodon carcharias - the great white shark. White pointer, white death, man-eater supremo, Jaws, call it what you will. You've seen the film, read the book. And now (I had planned to reveal), it's at a beach near you. Well, a slight exaggeration, that, but for three years I have secretly been planning an expedition to prove that the most feared predator in the sea is resident off the Scottish coast.

It wasn't my discovery, I must add. That credit goes to Stan Massey, a Glasgow boat skipper who has been convinced for more than a decade that his home waters are sheltering creatures far bigger than anything that has been caught. Massey was mocked some years ago when he claimed that smaller sharks such as porbeagles were in Scottish waters all year.

Other charter skippers, the press and big-game anglers ridiculed him. Then in 1994, a 414lb porbeagle was caught in March. In 1996, on the same day in March, the same Scottish mark produced a world porbeagle record of 507lb. Suddenly, Massey wasn't so mad any more.

Massey claimed that broadbill swordfish, mako shark and bluefin tuna also lurked in Scottish waters, though it needed a properly equipped boat capable of getting 100 miles or more out. His theories gained credence when trawlers caught the odd tuna and swordfish. It just meant fishing the right place at the right time, Massey said, and Scotland would be as good as Kenya, the Great Barrier Reef or Hawaii.

The story that he told only a few people, because it seemed so outlandish, was that the biggest nastiest brute of all, the great white shark, was there too. His proof was sketchy, to say the least. But his theories, backed by a few isolated incidents involving divers, were convincing enough for us to plan an expedition.

Massey said: "The whites off south California were only discovered a few years ago by chance, and the same goes for the great whites of South Island, New Zealand, 'discovered' around 1986. It doesn't mean they had just arrived. It means that prior to 1986, nobody had bothered to look for them."

Let's look at the evidence. Contrary to what most people think, the great white is not a creature of warm seas and sun-kissed coral beaches. It likes cooler waters. Its preferred range is 13-17C, with 14-15C being optimum. The west coast of Scotland, under the influence of the Gulf Stream, has temperatures of 14-16C, August to October.

Their favourite food is seals. Divers and surfers are often attacked because they look like seals. If you go surfing off California, paint I AM NOT A SEAL on the bottom of your board in large capitals. As Massey points out: "Every seal and sea-lion colony in temperate to cold water areas has predation by large sharks. Why should west Scotland be any different? We have the largest colonies of common and Atlantic grey seals in the world."

So why haven't we heard about them before now? Massey said: "The area is extremely sparsely populated, and the only real fishing operations close to the seal colonies are for lobster. The fleets 'shoot' on a Monday and don't return until Friday. For most of the week, nobody is there, so nobody knows what is going on. Anglers are never in the area, nor tourists. Anyone seeing a seal or pup being attacked would put it down to killer whales, which are evident in late summer and autumn. Who in their right sense would think that seal had been attacked by a great white?

"Then again, who in their right mind would have believed that the established porbeagle fishery in the English Channel could be rearranged to a winter fishery in the extreme north of Scotland? We did, and you know the results."

This, you might say, is just guesswork. But there are details that do a lot more than hint at the presence of Jaws. I'll tell you about those next week, and why I'll never get that cuddle from Melinda Messenger.

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