Fishing Lines: My great white hope is to catch one

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The Independent Online

It's probably an apocryphal story. But I'm told that researchers once connected a load of Australian alpha males to electrodes and tried them on word association to see which provoked the biggest reaction.

It wasn't gun, snake, murder, knife, funnel-web, sheep-dip, billabong, taxes or Pauline Hanson. Scarcely a flicker. But when the word "shark" was mentioned, their pulse-rate graph shot up like an oil company's profits.

Many people will feel the same, I guess. It probably accounts for the popularity of shark programmes on television, and newspapers' obsession with reporting catches of "man-eaters" around our coastline.

The latest this week was the capture of a 250lb porbeagle shark off Sunderland that had become trapped in a trawler's nets. One account called it "a relative of the great white shark" - but only in that it has pointy teeth too.

Nor is it the largest shark ever caught in the north. The British record, which has stood since 1993, is a 507lb porbeagle taken off Dunnet Head, Caithness, in February that year. Far from being a rarity scaring folk off the beaches, porbeagles are relatively common all through the year off Scotland.

Another scare story was the sight of a shark fin about 500 metres off Seaham North Pier, County Durham, which allegedly so frightened one fisherman that he headed back to shore. This tale speculated that the shark could be a mako, which has a few convictions to its name, but none in the northern hemisphere. Equally, the story admitted a few paragraphs later, it could have been a por-beagle. Even experienced anglers would find it hard to tell the difference from a glimpse of a fin.

As author of the legendary Catch More Sharks, I know these things. You've got more chance of being bitten by a squirrel than being attacked by a British shark - except, that is, off the Outer Hebrides. For years, I've been documenting unusual incidents in this area. Typically, two divers went down to photograph seals underwater and noticed a very big shark, way bigger than any porbeagle. It started to circle them. "We didn't like it, so we got out of the water, fast," they said.

That shark was almost certainly a great white. They are not, as most people think, warm-water lovers. But wherever there are large seal colonies in the world, great whites will not be far away.

The sea temperature off the Hebrides is exactly the same as off Chile, New Zealand and southern Australia, where you will find the largest concentrations of white pointers. Seals are their favourite food (that's why surfers are often attacked: because they look like a seal), and the Hebrides boasts the world's largest grey seal colony. In the old, less enlightened, days, fishermen used seals for bait.

A couple of years ago, I put together an expedition to fish for them. Money, or rather lack of it, eventually scuppered the plan, though Sky Sports were very interested. The great whites are still there, I'm convinced, and I've got the pirate's map (X marks the spot). Now that would be a story.