Marine ecologist swims with blue sharks off Aran Islands

‘Once you take the right precautions, it is very safe’

Blue sharks are one of the most abundant large predators on the planet, but they’ve also been fished to extinction and attracted far too many negative headlines.

That's the view of marine ecologist Nick Pfeiffer, who swam with and photographed a school – or "shiver" – of five blue sharks west of the Aran Island of Inis Oírr last weekend.

A calm Atlantic, bright sunshine and lure of fresh food provided ideal conditions for the close contact, Mr Pfeiffer told The Irish Times.

With fellow divers Jerome McCormick and Brian Stone, along with his 11-year-old son Nicky, Mr Pfeiffer set some recently caught mackerel in the deep water area overnight, then returned 16 hours later.

First in Ireland

“Water was about 16 degrees Celsius, and the sea was like oil as they approached our boat,” he said. “While I’ve seen them many times, this was the first time I swam with them in Irish waters.”

“They came right up, rubbed against me and were generally very friendly,” he said. One of the largest, at about 2m long, was a pregnant female.

“Once you take the right precautions, it is very safe,” Mr Pfeiffer said. “It’s only if you were careless, such as having fish oil on your hands, that they might take a snap at you . . . like any animal would.”

Blue sharks are among some 28 species of shark known to be in Irish waters, and have been tagged by Irish scientists during their summer migrations to this coastline.

Blue sharks have been tracked as far south as Morocco, said Dr Tom Doyle of NUI Galway's Ryan Institute, who was involved in a tagging programme when at University College Cork.

Swimming around

"We seem to have a lot of juvenile female blue sharks who separate from the main pack and hang out on the continental shelf," Dr Doyle said, "and enjoy some really good foraging grounds here – with one female that we tracked travelling to the Azores and then returning."

However, their population is in a “perilous state”, according to Mr Pfeiffer. Although the EU has moved to protect sharks, they do not enjoy the same protected status as whales and dolphins, and are still a target for their fins, which are used in sharkfin soup in Asian countries.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times