Sharks are appearing in ever greater numbers in the cold waters surrounding the British Isles, but what types of sharks are there and how many?
I grew up living next to British coastal waters, in south west Scotland, specifically next to the Atlantic Ocean to the north of Ireland. Despite swimming in the sea from April through to September, I saw no sharks, apart from the occasional dogfish, caught accidentally when out in a boat fishing for herring or mackerel.
Dogfish are part of the shark family, and it was specifically Squalus acanthias, the spiny dogfish, that we used to catch accidentally.
They have two spine on their backs, one behind each of its two dorsal fins, and when captured, it is not unknown for them to arch their back and pierce the skin of whoever is closest to it. These spines are poisonous, so catching a dogfish meant having a hammer ready as you pull it on board, to knock it out so that the hook could be released.
I've seen porpoises off the west coast of Scotland, but never sharks.
Yet they are there, which I'm awfully glad I never knew about when I was growing up, else I would never have had so much fun catching crabs among the rocks or snorkeling for the tiny sand flounders that live in the shallow waters.
Alopias superciliosus - bigeye thresher shark
The first confirmed sighting of the Bigeye thresher shark was a juvenile, off the coast of Cornwall in 2001. Thresher sharks are fish eaters, and have an elongated tail which they whip to stun their prey. They are not considered to be dangerous to man.
Alopias vulpinus - thresher sharks
Thresher sharks can grow to 20' long and are more commonly seen in the warmer waters of the English channel. In 2007, one was caught in the North Sea off the Yorkshire coast. Threshers are easily identifiable because of their elongated caudal fins.
Carcharhinus longimanus - oceanic whitetip
An extremely dangerous shark, the oceanic whitetip is normally seen in the deep oceans of the world where during the last world war they were responsible for the deaths of thousands of servicemen shot down at sea. There has only been one report of a fisherman catching an oceanic whitetip in British waters, and it has not been confirmed.
List of kinds of sharks seen in British waters
1. Alopias superciliosus - bigeye thresher shark
2. Alopias vulpinus - thresher sharks
3. Carcharhinus longimanus - oceanic whitetip
4. Carcharodon carcharias - great white sharks
5. Centrophorus granulosus - Gulper shark
6. Centroscyllium fabricii - black dogfish
7. Centroscymnus coelolepis - Portuguese dogfish
8. Cetorhinus maximus - Basking shark
9. Chlamydoselachus anguineus - frilled shark
10. Dalatias licha - Kitefin shark
11. Dipturus batis - common skate, blue skate
12. Echinorhinus brucus - bramble sharks
13. Etmopterus spinax - velvet belly lantern shark
14. Galeorhinus galeus - tope shark
15. Galeus melastomus - blackmouth catshark, blackmouth dogfish
16. Ginglymostoma cirratum - nurse shark
17. Heptranchias perlo - sharpnose sevengills
18. Hexanchus griseus - blunt-nosed six gilled shark
19. Isurus oxyrinchus - short fin mako
20. Lamna nasus - porbeagle
21. Mustelus asterias - starry smoothhounds
22. Mustelus mustelus - common smoothhound
23. Prionace glauca - blueshark
24. Scyliorhinus canicula - small-spotted catshark
25. Scyliorhinus stellaris - nursehound, large spotted dogfish
26. Somniosus microcephalus - Greenland sharks, grey sharks
27. Sphyrna zygaena - smooth hammerhead
28. Squalus acanthias - spiny dogfish
29. Squatina squatina - angel shark
Amazing BBC footage of a basking shark
Carcharodon carcharias - great white sharks
Again this dangerous man-eating shark has apparently over the years had many sightings in British coastal waters, but none have been confirmed.
Centrophorus granulosus - Gulper shark
Gulper sharks are a kind of dogfish that lives in deep water, reaches 1.5M (4 feet) in length, and is harmless to man.
Many of the sharks in British coastal waters are harmless to man, even the biggest of them all, the plankton-eating basking shark.
Many are only found in the deeper waters miles out from the coast. About a third of the sharks listed above are only found in deep water including the Portuguese Dogfish, Black Dogfish, Kitefin Shark and Gulper Sharks.
Some are only summer visitors.
Blue sharks and shortfin makos are only sighted in the summer months during their migratory season.
Indigenous sharks in British waters are suffering the same fate as sharks world-wide. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Warm water sharks are appearing in greater numbers, for reasons unknown.
Slow breeders and late developers, sharks simply can't reproduce quickly enough to replace their huge numbers lost through over-fishing.
Sharks are prized for their fins, destined for the Asian market where they are turned into shark's fin soup for the increasingly wealthy Chinese people who serve this dish as a mark of deep respect to other wealthy Chinese people. It's a status symbol, if you like.
From all accounts, shark's fin's soup would be awful if it weren't for the chicken stock and vegetables added in to make a nice broth. The Shark's fin itself is tasteless and ends up looked like pasta, which to be honest is pretty tasteless too.
Many industries used to use the fish oil extracted from sharks but have agreed to discontinue and find other sources of what they need, because the plight of sharks is so serious.
Sharks in British Seas Trailer
Centroscyllium fabricii - black dogfish
The black dogfish is a deep water shark that barely grows longer than 2 feet. It is frequently an accidental by-catch of deep sea trawlermen who discard it overboard as it is worthless to the fish market. It's numbers have seriously declined and it is now in the near threatened list.
Centroscymnus coelolepis - Portuguese dogfish
This is the deepest-living shark known, having been found at depths of 12,000ft under the sea. It catches its prey by looking for the bio-luminescence that radiates from other deep sea creatures. No sunlight permeates to this depth. They typically reach about 3 feet long and are prized by fishermen for their liver oils which are widely used in industry. It is classed as 'near threatened'.
Cetorhinus maximus - Basking shark
The second biggest of all sharks, the basking shark can reach 40 ft in length. Only the whale shark is bigger. Found in temperate waters the world over, basking sharks are harmless plankton eaters in spite of their great size. There have been numerous sightings of the basking shark around British coastal waters where it is a protected species. You will get jailed for six months if you harm a basking shark, so be warned.
Chlamydoselachus anguineus - frilled shark
Like a mythical demon snake, the frilled shark has an elongated, eel-shaped body. They can reach about 6.5 feet in length and inhabit the ocean floors at the edge of continental shelves between 160 - 660 feet deep. They can eat creatures twice their size, including other sharks, but there are no reports of attacks on humans. They are on the 'near threatened' list.
Dalatias licha - Kitefin shark
Growing to about 4.5 feet long, the kitefin shark, otherwise known as the seal shark, black shark or Darkie Charlie, lives in the ocean floor in deep waters down to 2000 feet, but it has been captured at 6,000 feet down. A member of the dogfish family, it's a solitary predator and eats just about anything, including other sharks. It has never eaten man because we don't go that deep in the ocean, though one man did once wearing full deep-sea diving gear which would have protected him. Kitefin sharks are 'near threatened' because of sea sea fisheries who target them for their meat, skin and liver oil.
Dipturus batis - common skate, blue skate
The common skate is a member of the shark family. Growing to 10 feet in width, these deep sea creatures that have been found in depths of 2,000 feet are now extremely rare if not extinct.
In the IUCN Red List, it is listed as critically endangered.
For many years, anglers, who occasionally catch skate while fishing, have operated a voluntary code of returning them to the sea unharmed.
Commercial fishermen have been encouraged to do the same.
In 2006, twenty four of their egg cases were washed ashore in Caithness in northern Scotland, perhaps showing that they are still around even though seldom seen.
Echinorhinus brucus - bramble sharks
Bramble sharks (or spiny sharks) are deep-water creatures, living on the sea bed down to a depth of 3000 feet. Their bodies are covered with denticles (which are like teeth) which is why they are called after the thorny bush. The denticles are luminescent in deep water. They grow to 13 feet in length.
Quite harmless to humans, probably because of the depths it lives at, the bramble shark is listed as 'data deficient' by the IUCN, as no-one knows if their numbers are declining or not. They live too deep to be fished even by deep sea fishermen.
Etmopterus spinax - velvet belly lantern shark
This is another deep-water dogfish, that lives at depths of down to 8,000 feet. Unfortunately they don't always stay at this depth and are frequently caught by deep sea fishermen as a by-catch.
It gets its name velvet belly from its distinctive two-tone coloring which is black underneath and brown on top, and the lantern is obvious from the photo. It is luminescent.
It's a small shark that only grows to 18" long.
Galeorhinus galeus - tope shark
Also known as the school shark, the tope shark is a big lad that grows to 7 feet long and has been found at depths of 1,800 ft, but which lives and travels in shoals at much shallower depths. Harmless to man, it is being fished out of existence. It's fins, meat and liver oil are all hunted for their commercial value, and it is on the IUCN red list as 'vulnerable'.
BBC Earth video about searching for sharks in British waters
Galeus melastomus - blackmouth catshark, blackmouth dogfish
The catshark is among the most common types found in our oceans and is not on any endangered list.
It grows to about 2.5 ft, with, like most shark species, the females being bigger than the males. They live in waters from 500 ft down to 4,500 ft and are frequently caught by fishermen as a by-catch, and discarded because they are worthless.
Ginglymostoma cirratum - nurse shark
Why a nurse shark should be found in British waters is a mystery because this is a tropical or subtropical water fish. It cannot be blamed on global warming, because the sea temperatures off England ranges from 6 to 20+oC (43 – 60+oF) and has done for the last 3000 years.
The nurse shark is a shallow water shark that hides under rocks that are only a metre or 2 deep during the day, coming out to feed at night. They can give a nasty bite so it is best to stay away from them. In 2001, two divers identified an immobile shark at the bottom of the English Channel near Alderney as a nurse shark.
Heptranchias perlo - sharpnose sevengill shark
This is not a pleasant shark to encounter. It's ferocious, a top predator despite its relatively diminutive size ( it reaches just under 4 ft in length). It lives at a depth of 1000 - 3000 ft, and is occasionally caught as a by-product by deep sea fisheries and long line trawlers. In captivity they are exceptionally dangerous and will try to bite their captors. It's not supposed to be present in British coastal waters at all, preferring warmer seas, but has been seen twice, once off Cornwall and another time of southern Ireland.
Hexanchus griseus - blunt-nosed six gill shark
Also known as the cow shark, it grows to 18 feet. Its a deep water fish, typically ranging in waters between 300ft - 6,000 ft deep. They tend to rise to the shallower waters to feed at night. They are slow moving creatures, but can attain amazing speeds when chasing prey. They have never attacked man. It is on the 'near threatened' list of the IUCN.
BBC video about scientific evidence disproving shark attacks in British waters
Isurus oxyrinchus - shortfin mako
A summer visitor to British shores, the shortfin mako grows to 7 - 9 feet on average. An ocean-going pelagic fish, it can travel great distances at great speeds, depending on whether it is after a mate or prey. They have been known to cross the Atlantic, in fact do so several times a year. They can travel at 30mph, perhaps faster, so don't bother trying to outswim it if it is chasing you! The shortfin mako, which is dangerous to man, is on the IUCN critically endangered list.
Lamna nasus - porbeagle shark
Reaching over 8 feet in length, the porbeagle shark is on the critically endangered list. It would appear that the English Channel around the Channel Islands is a nursery ground for them, because in 2009 an angler caught a newly born one there. Extremely shy of man, porbeagles, who have never attacked humans, will quickly turn tail if they suspect a human is around. When caught, however, they will fight to the bitter end.
Mustelus asterias - starry smoothhounds
Starry smooth-hounds are shallow water sharks that live in waters down to 300 feet, but commonly come right into the shallows in summer months.
They can reach 4 feet in length, and are harmless to man.
They are not commercially fished and so their numbers are not considered to be at risk.
Mustelus mustelus - common smoothhound
This shark is very similar to the starry smooth-hound, except that it doesn't have spots on its back. It also prefers slightly deeper waters. It is commonly mistaken for the tope shark except it's second dorsal fin is larger. Common smooth-hounds frequently group together in packs, just like dogs, hence the name.
Prionace glauca - blue shark
The blue shark is the most wide ranging geographically of all fish. Being pelagic, it is to be found in every sea and ocean the world over. They can reach 12.5 ft in length, and frequently travel in schools that consist of similarly-sized sharks, that are either all female or all male. They are not considered dangerous although they have caused 4 fatalities, usually after being caught. Up to 20 million of them are fished from global waters annually, and their numbers are now classed as 'vulnerable' on the IUCN list of threatened species.
Blue shark off coast of Wales,summer 2012
The Daily Mail carried the story of this blue shark, and described it as being a pup. This would have been very unusual, because although blues are to found in British waters, it is widely believed their nursery grounds are on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Looking at the video, I would estimate this fish to be 5 - 6ft in length, and at that stage may be considered adult, and is indeed the average size for an adult blue shark, although many can grow longer.
Scyliorhinus canicula - small-spotted catshark
Also known as the lesser-spotted dogfish, this shallow water catshark is, if anything, increasing in numbers. They can reach 3 ft in length, and their main diet is small fish and crustaceans.
Commercial fisheries largely discard them, and scientists have learned that a massive 98% of the discarded catch survives.
Video of the small-spotted catshark in British waters
Scyliorhinus stellaris - nursehound, large spotted dogfish
Similar in appearance to the small-spotted catshark, the nursehound is identifiable by having larger spots on its upper side. It can grow up to 5ft long, and lives in depths of down to 200 feet, hiding under rocks by day, and coming out to feed at night. Not considered dangerous to man, unless caught, when it can attack. It can twist its long body round to bite the hand that holds it. Nursehounds are being fished out of existence are on the 'Near Threatened' list of the IUCN. Unfortunately for them, when beheaded and chopped up, they look and taste like salmon. If you order 'rock salmon' in a restaurant, this is what is served. It's other menu names are 'flake' or 'rock eel'.
Somniosus microcephalus - Greenland sharks, grey sharks
Also known as sleeper shark, gurry shark, ground shark and grey shark, Greenland sharks are the northermost shark species. They grow to a massive 24 ft long and are apex predators and scavengers. They live in waters down to at least 7,000 ft and their meat is poisonous. Icelanders and Greenlanders consider it a delicacy. The meat has to be dried and fermented to get rid of the poison. Although they are on the IUCN's 'near threatened' list, there is some evidence that their numbers are increasing around the UK.
Sphyrna zygaena - smooth hammerhead
The smooth hammerhead can reach up to 16 feet long, and is the only hammerhead species that likes cool waters. They frequently travel in huge schools that can number in their thousands, but this is becoming rarer as overfishing and shark-finning has reduced their numbers by so much, that they are now listed as 'vulnerable' on the IUCN list. Potential man-eaters, it is fortunate that they do not encounter many human swimmers so far out to sea in the cooler waters. In the open ocean, they tend to stay close the surface but have been spotted under-water as deep as 600 feet.
Squalus acanthias - spiny dogfish
The spiny dogfish was once the most abundant shark in the world, but due to overfishing, its number are declining rapidly and it is now on the 'vulnerable' list of the IUCN. It is recognisable by its two spines to the rear of its pair of dorsal fins which are poisonous. They grow to about 5 feet in length, and are found in shallow waters around the British Isles, but in deeper waters in other warmer seas and oceans.
Squatina squatina - angel shark
Attaining a maximum length of almost 8 ft, the angel shark lives in the sea-bed on continental shelves down to 500 feet deep. Its body is flat and wide and resembles a ray. Eaten as 'monkfish' it is now almost extinct and is considered to be 'critically endangered' on the IUCN list. They lie half-buried in the sand and ambush their prey. They can give a nasty bite to humans if disturbed, although are generally not aggressive.
- Wildlifeonline - Checklist of UK Elasmobranch Species
Wildlife Online Checklist of UK Elasmobranch Species
- The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
- Sharks & Rays (BMLSS Information Page)
Sharks and Rays over the NE Atlantic Continental Shelf. Could it be a Great White Shark? (August 1999)
- Wildlifeonline - British White Shark?
British Great White Shark
- British Sharks
Sharks, Information on Sharks, great white sharks, adopt a shark, types of sharks,shark finning
- BBC News - Great white sharks could be in British waters
Great white sharks could be "occasional vagrant visitors" to waters around the British Isles, according to an expert.
IzzyM (author) from UK on July 21, 2012:
You're welcome and thanks for commenting:)
I must admit before I sat down to research it, I had no idea that so many sharks lived in our cooler coastal waters. Now I know why I never liked swimming in sea water that I couldn't see the bottom of, my subconscious must have known there were sharks down there, even if I didn't!
Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on July 21, 2012:
Izzy - this is so detailed and interesting - it's like an encyclopedia of sharks! I have never heard of many of these varieties, and although it's clear that not all sharks are Jaws-level killers, I admit that movie and various folklore stories have been my main source of infornation on these creatures.
This is fascinating - thanks for the great read!
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 22, 2012:
I loved doing this hub, and have just added in more videos for those who are truly interested in this topic. Thanks for reading :)
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on January 21, 2012:
Well, dunno if you've realized it or not - but I love to learn about wildlife and such, and I'm impressed with this particular piece for the huge amount of information found here.
Also, that the Basking shark is the second largest of all fish - how the heck did I NOT know that?
Oh well, that's taken care of now :-D
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 10, 2012:
Hey I hope you put it back unharmed! Thanks for commenting :)
Julz09 on January 10, 2012:
Excellent Hubpage, i really like the detailed information in this post! reminds me of when i last caught a port jackson shark. That was in Tasmanian waters though.
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 09, 2012:
You are so right, sharks in general, only accidentally attack humans thinking they are seals or something. They are so disappointed when they take a bite and find we are full of bones and not big lumps of blubber, that they usually leave after the first bite, unless they were starving of course. You've heard the expression of being hungry enough to eat a scabby dog, well in shark-speak they might be hungry enough to eat a scabby human. Really shark attacks are so rare, as you say. And yes shy of people, or I'd surely have seen them when growing up.
JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on January 09, 2012:
Wow, I had no idea that all these sharks troll the waters "over there"! This Hub is very interesting. Thanks for sharing on Google+! Sharks are often misunderstood creatures and are generally not as aggressive as people think. Maybe that is why you had no idea that they were around you all those years you swam in the ocean! Awesome job. Voting up!
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 09, 2012:
Biggest shark I ever saw was the dogfish. I seem to remember fishing for tope. I had no idea they were from the shark family!
Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on January 09, 2012:
Wow...great job on this, Izzy. When I was younger, I used to catch Shovel Nose and Hammer heads off the coast of Tampa. I wouldn't want to run into anything bigger, like the ones you talk about here. Very interesting...thanks.
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 08, 2012:
Yes it took a long time to research and write this hub, but I must admit I enjoyed every bit of it! Sharks are fascinating creatures.
Sophia Angelique on January 08, 2012:
Wow! Izzy, did you read an encyclopedia. This is an amazing hub with tip top information. Must have taken you hours and hours to do. I'm sure lots of people looking for this kind of information will find your article. :)
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 08, 2012:
Me too LOL. Imagine there being so many sharks in British waters, and we simply didn't know! Just as well, really.
Joyce Haragsim from Southern Nevada on January 08, 2012:
It's a good job no one ever mentioned sharks when I was a kid going to Hastings beach in the south because I just usede to run into the cold water. Voted up ,interesting and useful.
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 08, 2012:
Good idea,please do. It is especially important for him to know there are sharks around. I am pleased to note that most inshore fishermen return caught sharks to the sea and that they are reporting having caught them. There are large populations of basking sharks around, so your friend really needs to know that not only are they harmless, but it is an offence to attack one should someone not realise what it is and think it a great white or something. There have been several reports of great whites, but none confirmed (photographic evidence etc). Last sighting was from a fishing boat that had two experts aboard, but so unexpected, shark had swum away before camera was brought out!
Martyv25 on January 08, 2012:
Wow Izzy great hub, I really didn't realise that so many sharks lived or frequented British waters, I have swam in the seas of the North East coast for years and never seen anything like a shark either, I also have a friend who is into surfing, I think I may send him this via Facebook.
IzzyM (author) from UK on January 08, 2012:
Thaks Dipless, I wrote it because I asked that simple question and found no-one could give me a direct answer. Some sites have incomplete lists of sharks but no description of where they live, or if they are dangerous or not - which is what folk want to know really. I could have written a lot more and made myself stop and publish. I'm fascinated by sharks! Yes the nurse shark must have been lost or something. Poor thing must have been freezing!
dipless from Manchester on January 08, 2012:
This is a great and VERY well researched article, that is quite an impressive list of sharks seen in British waters, I too have swam in British waters for a long time and never encountered anything even close to shark. The one that surprised me the most was the Nurse Shark! Never would have guessed. Thank you for sharing this