Bournemouth shark: how common are UK sharks as Boscombe beach evacuated – are there great whites in Britain?

With so many species under threat, conservationists say seeing a shark in British waters should be a cause for celebration, not alarm

Boscombe beach was evacuated this week after reports of a possible shark sighting close to the shore.

Swimmers were evacuated from the water at the Bournemouth beach after a “large marine animal” was spotted in the water.

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The RNLI said it received reports of “significant movement” in the water at Boscombe, leading its lifeguards to take action on Wednesday (4 August).

Sunbathers enjoy sunny weather on Boscombe beach in Bournemouth, where swimmers were recently evacuated from the water after a 'large marine animal' was spotted (Photo: Adrian DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The alert at the Dorset beach ended about 30 minutes later.

It is not known which species of shark was reported to have been spotted. Lifeguards searched the sea on jet-skis, but any shark that may have been in the vicinity wasn't seen again.

But how common are sharks in UK waters? Are any of them dangerous? And could the infamous great white shark one day make its way to our shores?

Here is everything you need to know.

Despite warnings that climate change could drive the dreaded Great White shark to UK shores, attacks are rare, and are often a case of mistaken identity (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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Are there sharks in UK waters?

According to the Pew Trust, there are around 130 different species of shark found in European waters; Shark Trust estimates there to be at least 21 species that live in British waters all year round.

In the UK, there have been multiple sightings of both basking and porbeagle sharks in recent months, with members of the public spotting them closer to the shore than usual.

Basking sharks have also been spotted off Eastbourne over the last few years – while a tope shark was spotted along the coast in West Sussex.

David Sims, professor of marine ecology, ocean and earth science at the University of Southampton, said the recent spike in sightings over the past 18 months was a consequence of lockdown restrictions associated with Covid-19.

Sims said, “During the main lockdown period in March – July 2020 in Europe, large pelagic sharks such as blue sharks were seen venturing into very shallow water and in harbours and marinas.

“Sharks are sensitive to sound, including ship sounds which are sometimes avoided, so it is possible that if there has been a quieter ‘sound’, this may have acted to help extend the explorations of young sharks.”

But sharks already found in UK waters, such as thresher, basking and nursehound sharks, are in decline due to overfishing and other problems.

They need protection, according to Dr Ken Collins, from the University of Southampton, based at the National Oceanography Centre, and former administrator of the UK shark tagging programme.

Dr Collins said: “It’s likely we will be seeing more sharks spread from warmer regions such as the Mediterranean Sea towards our waters in the UK over the next 30 years.

“These include the likes of blacktips, sand tigers and hammerheads, which are currently found swimming off the coasts of Spain and Portugal.”

He added: “Though while the potential number of shark species around the UK may increase in the next few decades, the overall number of sharks, especially the larger ones, will fall as a result of overfishing, plastic waste and climate change.

Are UK sharks dangerous?

While the threat of more exotic species making their way to the UK in the years to come may alarm some would-be sea swimmers, for now there isn’t too much to worry about.

According to Shark Trust, “only a few sharks are potentially dangerous to humans,” and “none of these have ever been reported in British waters.

"There have also been no unprovoked shark bites in British waters since records began in 1847. With so many shark species under threat we think that seeing a shark in British waters should be a cause for celebration. Not alarm.”

Can you get great white sharks in UK waters?

In 2018, experts warned new types of sharks could be heading to UK waters as a result of warming seas.

A study revealed 10 species of sharks currently found in warmer parts of the world, such as hammerheads and blacktip sharks, may be swimming in British seas within 30 years as the climate changes.

The study named Cornwall as the country’s shark capital, with at least 20 species found off the coast, followed by the Scilly Isles and Devon.

More species could be heading towards the UK from places such as the Mediterranean and the coast of Africa as seas become warmer due to climate change, according to the research.

Dr Collins said he saw “no reason” why there should not be great white sharks in UK waters in decades to come, as they were found in colder waters off South Africa and favoured seals – found in Cornwall – to eat.

But numbers of great whites, hit by an image problem since the movie Jaws, are in decline worldwide so the chances of seeing them in the UK falls each year, he said.

Over the past five years, the average number of shark attacks annually has been just 80.

Although great whites are often the culprits of this relatively small number of attacks, research has found that many are not fatal - with great whites taking a “sample bite” then releasing the human target.

Research indicates that humans are also not a great white’s intended prey, with attacks on swimmers or surfers likely to be a confusion: as humans can look like seals viewed from below by the shark.

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