To describe the book as a ‘history’ is too simplistic. It’s far more than that, perhaps ‘journey’ is better. A journey that takes in the brutal mechanics and financial rewards of a fishery that drove this wonderful creature to near extinction and sees the slow realisation of the hunters’ impact on basking shark numbers, before there is an eventual move towards understanding, conservation and protection.
As a pioneering basking shark conservationist, Speedie’s knowledge of the animal is considerable, but it is also his depth of research into the shark-fishing industry that is so commendable. There’s a sense that only by understanding the methods and economics of the industry can we appreciate the pressures on these animals and seek to protect them.
While the prose is authoritative and well written, it’s far from being a dusty academic journal. Instead, it takes a conversational tone – marrying scientific data with casual reminiscence is no mean feat, but Speedie carries it off. I particularly enjoyed the author’s description of a childhood obsession with this most wondrous of fish and then, after years of waiting, his first encounter with a basking shark – or to be precise with seven of the creatures – somewhere in the middle of the English Channel. ‘We stopped the boat and gazed in wonder (and not a little fear) at the spectacle.’
But the book truly comes alive with Speedie’s recollections of his early basking shark surveys, working with the Marine Conservation Society, the Cornwall Wildlife Trusts and even the local fishing fleet to conduct ground-breaking, pioneering surveys of the populations. And then moving on to the best of years – 2005 to 2006 – when Speedie writes: ‘we had the best day of recorded shark sightings we would ever have, with 93 animals.’
Unless you’re a basking shark fan, you’re probably not going to read it, but if you are or pick it up on the off chance – this is a treat.