A sighting of an angel shark in Galway Bay is “an extremely rare event”, the Marine Institute has said, adding that “many people have been searching for a long time for such good footage” of the sharks.
Angel sharks were a common sight in Atlantic waters as recently as the 1970s and a regular feature in bays as distant as Norway, Morocco and the Canary Islands. In Ireland angel sharks were plentiful and regularly the subject of angling competitions, particularly on the west coast, but were also regularly seen in the Irish Sea.
Now however, the Marine Institute says the sharks, of the genus Squatina of the family Squatinidae, are rarely seen in Europe outside of Tralee, Galway or Clew Bays in Ireland and Cardigan Bay in Wales and are endangered worldwide. Numbers have dwindled rapidly in recent decades due to the sharks’ propensity to go out to deep waters where they become an unintended catch of commercial fishing fleets.
But at the weekend Galway kayaking instructor and lifeguard trainer Colin O’Loan and fellow instructor Ronan Breathnach were taking a group of 10- to 15-year-olds on a kayaking expedition in Galway Bay when an angel shark came by and spent time swimming around them.
“I am not a scientist so I first thought it was a ray,” O’Loan told The Irish Times. “It looked like a ray, so we dubbed it ‘Jackie Healy’ [after the late, Co Kerry-based politician] and we filmed it from above and underwater,” he said.
O’Loan said the shark was in a quite shallow part of the bay that was accessible from the sea by a narrow neck of water and it may have been waiting for the tide to come in before it could make the trip back out into the wider Galway Bay. “The location was actually within a few hundred metres of the Marine Institute building itself,” he said.
O’Loan said his class of kayakers were thrilled with the sighting, describing it as “class”.
“It was only when I got home and did a bit of research that I found out what we were dealing with” O’Loan said. He posted the footage on social media, where it generated a significant response, with many commenting on the rarity of the sighting.
Marine Institute team leader and shark expert Maurice Clarke told The Irish Times that the sighting and accompanying footage was “really, really special”. He said “many people have been searching for a long time for such good footage”. He said there were about three “hotspots” left in western Europe where the sharks could be seen and these included Galway Bay. “They have been hunted to low levels, due to recreational fishing in the 60s and 70s,” he said, “and later from being a by-catch of commercial fishing fleets”.
Clarke said there was no real danger of the sharks getting caught up in commercial fishing nets in Galway Bay, but that danger arises when they swim further out, to where the fishing fleet operates “and they get caught in the nets”.
Angel sharks are part of the genus Squatina of the family Squatinidae. They commonly inhabit sandy seabeds close to 150m (490ft) in depth. Many species are now classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They inhabit temperate and tropical marine environments and are known to bury themselves in sandy or muddy environments during the day, where they remain camouflaged for weeks until a desirable prey crosses paths with them. At night, they take a more active approach and cruise on the bottom of the floor. Squatina preys on fish, crustaceans and cephalopods.
Although the shark is a bottom-dweller and appears harmless, it can inflict painful lacerations if provoked, due to its powerful jaws and sharp teeth. It may bite if a diver approaches the head or grabs the tail.