AS activities go, swimming with sharks may not be everyone's idea of the perfect holiday.

But a Scottish tour operator which offers adventurous tourists the chance to do just that has found that business is booming in the seas off the Western Isles.

Basking Shark Scotland has received national tourism body VisitScotland’s top grading on the first time of asking after a bumper year which saw them fully booked during the summer peaked summer season.

The Oban-based firm offer trips to see basking sharks in their natural environment and swim alongside them using a snorkel or scuba gear.


The firm organises trips for small groups

The wildlife tour firm has now been awarded a five-star rating from VisitScotland's Quality Assurance (QA) Scheme in recognition of its exceptional standards, and also scooped the Best Outdoor Experience at the Highlands & Islands Tourism Awards.

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Founded by marine biologist Shane Wasik in 2012, Basking Shark Scotland also offers seal-swimming tours, sea-bird safaris, kayaking and beach-cleaning trips to isolated islands, as well as winter expeditions to Norway to swim with Orca.

However, the Hebrides is the best place of the world to see basking sharks and Mr Wasik, who grew up in Fife, and his team lead small guided tours out to see the mighty fish up close.

He said: "It's absolutely incredible swimming with them and people say it is a life-changing experience. People travel from all over the world specifically to see the sharks.

"Some people come to get over their fear of sharks, or because they are specifically interested in them or  just want to swim with them.

"And they tell us it's mind-blowing. They are completely blown away and say that's it's the best you can find when looking for a wildlife experience."


Basking sharks are gentle giants

Despite their fearsome appearance, basking sharks feast on plankton and have no interest in nibbling on anything bigger than a grain of sand.

The specimens found near Scotland typically grow to around eight or nine metres long and weigh several tonnes, but behemoths of 12 metres are not unknown.

Mr Wasik, 37, came up with the idea of running giving people the chance to see these gentle giants of the deep up close after travelling to New Zealand and seeing their wildlife tourism operations in action.

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After returning to Scotland and setting up his company, the pictures and videos he captured began attracting people from all over the world for a chance to swim with the big fish.

All the members of the team are marine biologists, and the tours have doubled as research-gathering expeditions with data shared with academics.

The father-of-one said: "Basking sharks are very different to other types of shark, and people say that they look very prehistoric. They are the second-biggest type of shark in the world, and have a mouth that's one-and-a-half metres wide.

"We have a policy of not getting too close - telling divers to stay four feet away from them - and no touching. But the sharks are curious and will get closer on their own once they become used to the divers. To them it's just another creature in the sea.

"They move slowly most of the time but they can fully breach out of the water, so we never forget to be careful around them."


Mr Wasik (right) with wife Nikki, guide Luke Saddler and daughter Mara

Mr Wasik added: “We’re stoked to achieve such a great rating both as a business and as a team. We work really hard on our experiences and set very high standards.

"Being pioneers in our field we strive to compete on the world stage for Shark Tourism and, with Scotland being the worldwide hotspot for basking sharks, we’re flying the flag for people to come and experience our gentle giants.”

The timing of the award is particularly apt as Scotland prepares for the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020. This year-long programme of events and activities will shine a spotlight on the impact our waters have on the country and its people.

READ MORE: Praise as new marine areas are unveiled to save sea life

David Adams McGilp, VisitScotland Regional Director, said: “Congratulations to Shane and his team on this exceptional achievement. To achieve a Five Star grading on the first time of asking is a testament to the hard work of this business to offer a quality experience.

“Our Quality Assurance Scheme is world-leading and provides a trusted, independent and impartial source of information for visitors. It is about much more than just a star rating – it is about the entire visitor experience and investing in the business to make it as economically sustainable, and profitable, as it can be.”