“There’s a washed up Dolphin carcass down at the beach!!”
Nothing more needed to be said, we were straight down there to check it out.
The Isle of man is full of hidden beaches, most of which are inaccessible unless you approach using a water propelled vehicle of some description. This particular beach, known as Niarbyl, reported to have a Dolphin carcass on its sands was definitely one of those hidden beaches; the adventure began by clambering over brick walls, fences and down dodgy cliffs.
This wasn’t the first time we had come in search of the recently deceased, but to no avail on our first look-out we assumed it would have sunk to the sea bed by now. It turns out, as we peered over and into the cove, that it wasn’t a Risso’s Dolphin, but the body of a 7 meter, partially decomposed Basking Shark. Bingo! Holding our noses whilst being careful not to stand on the many, many Herring Gull chicks, we approached the harmless beast to investigate.
My hay fever was at its worst and the angry Gull parents’ threats of diving and pooing on my head got the better of me, I was done. Wandering back the way I came, I soon noticed marine officers from the Isle of Man government and Wildlife Trust coming my way with sample bags, gloves and sharp looking implements – did I want to help them dissect and take samples?! .. back down to the cove we went.
Although the temptation to get my hands dirty was there, I took the role of photographer and happily observed at a safe distance as the first slice was made. The sharks stomach was full of plankton which suggested a healthy fish right before its death. The decomposition of the carcass made it difficult to establish a cause of death so DNA samples were taken, the sex was determined and samples of the vital organs were collected to be examined at the Aberdeen University laboratory for further analysis. The Manx Basking Shark Watch founders were very keen to figure out if they had taken DNA from this shark before, so every little helped. We had approximately 2 hours before the tide came in and washed it away, so we had to work fast and effectively. After observing these animals from the coastline for the past 4 weeks, it was incredible to be so close, inspecting inside its huge mouth and taking note of its physical appearance – something so much more obvious than the strange behaviour these animals show, something which scientists still know very little about.
By the time we had finished, the shark was almost unrecognisable. The same could be said for some of the volunteers with pink juicy stomach parts splashed across their face. Heavy organ samples were dragged back up the hill and we all walked away with an experience that has only been had by a handful of people across the world.