Moment an 18ft shark comes within inches of a stunned swimmer

Moment an 18ft shark comes within inches of a stunned swimmer off the coast of Scotland

  • Ryan Leith, 48, saw two sharks off the coast of the Shetland Islands, Scotland 
  • The swimmer came within inches of an 18-foot shark with its jaws open
  • He says their numbers are increasing with more shark sightings in recent weeks

A swimmer came within inches of an 18-foot shark with its jaws open off the coast of Scotland.

Ryan Leith, 48, spent days scouring the Shetland Islands for basking sharks before his encounter with one. 

‘I had just about given up when I saw not one, but two sharks just off the coastline at Fladdabister,’ he said.

Ryan Leith came within inches of an 18-foot shark with its jaws open off the coast of Scotland. The shark is seen above

‘They were feeding on the abundant plankton that blooms in the sea around Shetland during the summer.

‘I stopped the boat and dropped the anchor. The shark seemed to be interested in the boat and swam towards it almost immediately.

‘I took a lot of photos of it on the surface and then, as it seemed quite relaxed, I went over the side with my snorkelling gear on.’  

Ryan Leith, 48, spent days scouring the Shetland Islands for basking sharks before his encounter with one last Thursday

Mr Leith, a port controller for Lerwick Port Authority, estimated the shark he saw last Thursday was 18 feet long.

‘I waited close to the boat and filmed the shark with my GoPro as it passed by,’ he said.

‘It was great to be in the water with such a large and powerful animal. ‘The plankton it was feeding on limited the underwater visibility so it would only appear out of the gloom when it was a few metres away from me. It was quite exciting.’

The basking shark is the second-largest extant shark in the world, after the whale shark.

A filter feeder, it’s usually seen close to the surface with its huge jaws open, filtering out plankton, very small fish and invertebrates from the water.

Mr Leith said: ‘In the past – the 1950s and 60s – they were hunted around Shetland by Norwegian fishermen for their livers, which contain large amounts of oil.

‘Thankfully now they are a protected species and their numbers are increasing.

‘There have been a good number of basking sharks sightings around Shetland over the past few weeks which is great.’

Despite the fierce reputation of sharks as a group, they rarely attack humans and basking sharks in particular are considered harmless. 

Mr Leith said: ‘I took a lot of photos of it on the surface and then, as it seemed quite relaxed, I went over the side with my snorkelling gear on’

WHAT ARE BASKING SHARKS?

Basking sharks are the second-largest fish alive after whale sharks. 

While they typically grow to 20-26 feet long, they’ve been known to hit staggering lengths of up to 32 feet.

But, these giants are relatively harmless to humans. 

According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US), they ‘are considered passive and no danger to humans other than that posed by their large size and rough skin.’

They feed on zooplankton, swimming slowly just beneath the surface with their mouths open in a terrifyingly wide gape to filter the tiny organisms from seawater.

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