The school holidays are over and Parliament is back after the summer recess, so it must be time for the annual silly season great-white-shark-spotted-in-British-waters scare story – except that this year it may actually be true.
Marine expert and chairman of the Cornwall-based Shark Conservation Society, Richard Peirce, believes that a huge tooth found embedded in the rope of a crab pot last month belonged to one of the mighty ocean predators made famous by the 1970s film, Jaws. Mr Peirce, who has had a lifelong fascination with the creatures, said the latest discovery was the first conclusive evidence so far that great whites once patrolled the seas around the British Isles.
The find was a made by two fishermen off the port of Gairloch in Western Scotland. Recognising its possible significance, they immediately sent images of the tooth to Cornwall for verification. Mr Peirce, who has examined more than a hundred claimed encounters with great whites in British waters, said: "Of that number only eight remain credible. That doesn't mean these were definite sightings of great white sharks, but that the evidence remains credible. Every report is investigated, every lead tracked down, and an interesting picture emerges because it becomes apparent that the credible sightings are in two distinct clusters: Cornwall and northern Scotland. And of those, the most convincing sightings have all been off Cornwall. However, this tooth is extremely interesting because it is the first and only such record."
Mr Peirce explained that on July 18 he received an email from Scottish fisherman Jody McNeil who said he had pulled up his creels two days earlier and discovered a shark tooth embedded in the mesh of one. Mr McNeil was convinced the tooth came from a great white shark and was eager for Mr Peirce's opinion.
"Myself and my crewman, John Mackenzie, were hauling creels from the seabed in about 80 fathoms to the west of Gairloch," he said. "When creels have been lying a while they sink into the mud a bit, so when I get them to the boat I bang them on the top rail to get the mud off. When I banged this one I saw something embedded in the mesh. At first I didn't realise it was a tooth, but later saw it was a shark's tooth – and to me it looked like a great white shark's tooth."
Mr McNeil also contacted marine biologist Ian French, who agreed with the great white identification, adding that the tooth was probably a fossil or part-fossil.
Their conclusions have since been backed up by Dr Charles Underwood, who writes for the Shark Trust's magazine, Shark Focus. He said: "With this discovery off Scotland we come back to the question of why there are no great whites there today, especially as the area contains so many seals. One possible suggestion is that over time their food supply dwindled at some point and the great sharks died out. We do not know what has happened to seal populations in the past, but it is known that European populations of inshore whales crashed due to hunting. Maybe a period of intensive seal hunting followed. This would have resulted in a near complete loss of marine mammals in the region, with the seal populations having recovered since. If this was the case it would have been disastrous to white shark populations and could have led to their local extinction.
"So do great whites still cruise British waters? There have been no reliable records of them in recent years, but there is no reason why this ocean-crossing species cannot get here from the US seaboard or Mediterranean. They were here once and may well be here again."
Dr Underwood's opinion ties in with Richard Peirce's theory that while there is no resident population, there could be occasional visitors.
"What's more, I believe the occasional presence of these magnificent creatures should be a cause for celebration rather than alarm," added Mr Peirce.