Sharks in the UK: The Complete Guide to British Sharks

Sharks are the most feared creatures in the sea with a reputation as the perfect predator. Most people think of them living out in the vast ocean or on exotic and tropical coral reefs - and many do - but if you go swimming or diving off the British coast, chances are you’ll be sharing space with a shark or two. Read on to find out about sharks in the UK. There are more than you might think...

6 October 2021

Sharks are the most fascinating – and misunderstood – animals in the world but there’s more to these remarkable creatures than the great white and the hammerhead.

There are over 500 species and it might surprise you to know that over 75% are no bigger than the average adult man and over 100 are less than the length of two school rulers. It may also surprise you to know that there are over 40 species of sharks in the UK!

British Sharks

It’s a question that comes up in schoolrooms across the country, are their sharks in the UK? Well, one of the most interesting shark facts for kids is that the waters around Britain are actually teeming with sharks, including some of the fastest, rarest, biggest and most highly migratory in the world.

There are even over 20 species of sharks that remain in UK waters all year round. However, it’s unlikely you’ll come face-to-face with one while you’re paddling in the sea and – even if you do – you’re safe in the knowledge that to date there has never been an unprovoked attack by sharks in England or sharks in Scotland since records began way back in 1847.

Which Sharks are in British Waters?

Portbeagle shark on the hunt (Photography by Gerard Soury via Getty Images)

From very small sharks to the second largest fish in the sea, there are lots of different British sharks. For sharks in England, the most likely areas in which they dwell are the waters off Devon and Cornwall and up the west coast.

  • The smooth hammerhead shark is a very rare sight but if one does appear, it will most likely be in the North Atlantic off the western tip of Cornwall;
  • The torpedo-like blue shark has sometimes been spotted 10-20 miles off the southern coast of Cornwall during the summer months;
  • The highly migratory thresher shark passes through the English Channel in the summer off the Devon coast and has occasionally been seen to fully breach the water;
  • The shortfin mako shark – nicknamed ‘the cheetah of the ocean’ – is one of the world’s fastest sharks and can reach speeds of up to 45 mph. Albeit very rarely, they are occasionally spotted in the Bristol Channel and off the coast of Wales;
  • The porbeagle shark can be found all over the UK in the summer months where the waters suit this shark’s diet. Most commonly on the south coast but occasionally in the waters off North Yorkshire and Pembrokeshire.

Other types of sharks in the UK include many species of dogfish and catshark, frilled shark, bramble sharks, kitefin sharks, gulper sharks, spurdogs, topes and the wonderfully named starry smooth-hound shark.

However, the more surprising sharks in the UK tend to be found further north. One of the most remarkable sharks in Scotland is the incredible basking shark, the second largest fish in the world. It grows up to 12 metres and can weigh a staggering nine tonnes. Between May and October, this behemoth can be found on Scotland’s west coast in the Sea of the Hebrides. 

So revered are these gargantuan guests that this 10,000 km² body of water separating the Inner and Outer Hebrides has been designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA), predominantly to protect the basking sharks and the minke whales. In addition, the basking shark is a protected species of fish and categorised as a Priority Marine Feature in Scotland’s seas.

Are there Great White Sharks in the UK?

Blue shark in the sunlight (Photo: Getty Images)

There have been over 100 claimed sightings of the most notorious apex predator in the ocean but so far, not one has been confirmed. Given the conditions, it is not outside the realms of possibility for there to have been a great white shark in UK waters, and scientists believe the great white may be an occasional visitor. However, despite it being one of the largest species in terms of shark size – there’s no absolute proof, and in fact many of the sightings are a case of mistaken identity with the basking shark.

The closest there’s been to a great white shark in England is a female caught in the Bay of Biscay in 1977, almost 170 miles off the coast of Cornwall. In 2014, a tagged great white called Lydia was the very first to be documented crossing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge although she was still 1,000 miles from our shores.

And Finally

UK waters are home – permanently or temporarily – to a wonderfully diverse array of British sharks that keep the seas healthy and many people in Britain remain constantly surprised by the prevalence of so many sharks in British waters.

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