Great white sharks in Ireland? International team seeks confirmation in survey of Irish waters

‘The temperature and food options for them are ideal, so we think it’s just a matter of time before we find one here,’ says expedition leader

Researchers with US-based group Ocearch collect data from a white shark, with the animal’s welfare a key consideration. Ocearch is to support an expedition surveying for great whites in Irish waters. Photograph: Chris Ross/IPG/Ocearch

A large team of scientists is to embark on a major survey with the goal of documenting the presence of the great white shark in Irish waters.

Confirmed records of the species have occurred as far north as the Bay of Biscay but reports around Ireland and the UK are confined to anecdotal sightings.

The species made headlines recently with fake reports indicating one had been sighted off the Galway coast – with strong indication the supporting video posted on social media had not been filmed in Irish waters.

Dr Nick Payne of Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences, who is leading the expedition, said he is optimistic about the team’s chances of confirming its presence off the Irish coast.


“Those of us that study great whites in other parts of the world have had our eyes on Ireland as a likely location that the species may occasionally visit. The temperature and food options for them are ideal, so we think it’s just a matter of time before we find one here,” he said.

Irish shark scientists will embark on the September survey and work with Ocearch, a US-based great white shark research group.

“It’s exciting to have some of the world’s best great white researchers visiting Ireland to search for these amazing animals, and it’s also a brilliant opportunity to highlight all the other incredible sharks we have in our waters, as well as some of the threats they face,” Dr Payne added.

US-based Ocearch researchers track a white shark. Photograph: Chris Ross/IPG/Ocearch

Ireland is a globally recognised hotspot for shark species, such as the basking shark, porbeagle and tope shark, but great whites have yet to be formally recorded here. Found throughout the world’s oceans, great whites were historically common throughout the Mediterranean before overfishing caused major declines.

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The Irish team involves researchers from TCD; University College Dublin, University College Cork, Munster Technological University, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Marine Institute and Fair Seas. While searching for great whites, the team will also undertake a range of research on other shark and ray species of conservation concern.

“Sharks are keystone species in marine ecosystems. As top predators in the food web they regulate prey populations and through that shape the diversity, abundance and distribution of other species,” said Ocearch scientist and veterinarian Dr Harley Newton.

“This abundance and diversity is key to the health of marine habitats as well as human livelihoods. This expedition is an exciting opportunity to contribute knowledge on Ireland’s shark populations and why we need them,” she added.

A scientist with US research group Ocearch observes a white shark. Photograph: Chris Ross/ICG/Ocearch

Approximately 40 shark species inhabit Irish waters, with most facing threats and many classified as endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable. While few sharks are intentionally captured for consumption in the State, they are regularly killed incidentally as by-catch in other fisheries, and they also face challenges from habitat destruction and climate change.

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Sharks tend to grow slowly and produce small numbers of young each year, which can make them particularly vulnerable. The Government has a number of obligations for conservation of local shark populations, but effective management requires good understanding of what’s out there and how things are changing, Dr Payne said.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times