SCIENTISTS have captured stunning images revealing the secretive lives of basking sharks using a robotic camera - for the first time in the UK.

The ‘SharkCam’ has been used to observe the behaviour of the sharks - the second largest in the world - in the Inner Hebrides.

The ground-breaking technology, used for the first time in the UK, is set to reveal secrets about the elusive species that little is known about.

Footage gathered by the REMUS SharkCam technology will help support and promote basking shark conservation work.

Scientists hope the images captured by the autonomous underwater vehicle will reinforce the case for creating the world’s first protected area for basking sharks in Scottish waters.

HeraldScotland: Experts lower 'shark cam' into the water (Photo: PA)Experts lower 'shark cam' into the water (Photo: PA)

Conservationists want to create a protected zone for the animals with controls potentially placed on harmful activities such as creel fishing and wildlife watching.

The Marine Protected Area (MPA), if approved, would be the world’s first protected area for basking sharks.

It is hoped the images will add weight to the case for the MPA status and provide an understanding of measures to help protect the iconic species and its habitat.

The team used the camera to follow basking sharks below the surface of the water and collect high-quality oceanographic data and video of their behaviour from a distance. 

Read more: Scottish snorkel trail unveiled

Initial footage from the SharkCam deployed off the coast of Coll and Tiree last month showed the sharks moving through the water column, potentially searching for food, feeding near the surface and swimming close to the seabed.

Further analysis of footage could help uncover more about the species’ underwater behaviour, social interactions and courtship. It is suspected that basking sharks may even breed in Scotland - an event that has never before been captured on film.

HeraldScotland:

Dr Jenny Oates, WWF SEAS Programme Manager, said: “Our seas and coasts are home to some incredible wildlife. 

“As our oceans come under increasing pressure, innovative technology like the REMUS SharkCam Robot can reveal our underwater world like never before and help to show why it must be protected. 

“It is essential that we safeguard our seas, not just to enable magnificent species like basking sharks to thrive, but because all life on earth depends on our oceans.”

Fieldwork for the project took place in July in the proposed Sea of the Hebrides Marine Protected Area (MPA) – one of four possible MPAs currently under consultation by the Scottish Government

MPAs are specially designated and managed to protect marine ecosystems, habitats and species, which can help restore the area for people and wildlife.

The area is one of only a few world-wide where large numbers of basking sharks are found feeding in the surface waters each year.

It is suspected that basking sharks may even breed in Scotland - an event that has never before been captured on film.

Read more: Row over plastic pollution in Loch Lomond

Dr Suzanne Henderson, Marine Policy and Advice Officer at Scottish Natural Heritage, said: “These giant fish are spectacular and watching them feed gracefully at the sea surface is such a special and memorable experience.

“This year’s collaboration has allowed us to use a combination of camera technologies and given us a glimpse of basking sharks’ underwater behaviour – a real first and very exciting. 

“The footage has already made us reassess their behaviour, with the sharks appearing to spend much more time swimming just above the seabed than we previously thought.  

“It really brings home why it’s so important that the species and its habitat are protected by designating the Sea of the Hebrides as a Marine Protected Area.”

This year’s collaboration has allowed us to use a combination of camera technologies and given us a glimpse of basking sharks’ underwater behaviour – a real first and very exciting. 

HeraldScotland: One of the tags used to tag basking sharks around the Isle of Mull (Photo: Nina Constable/WWF/PA)One of the tags used to tag basking sharks around the Isle of Mull (Photo: Nina Constable/WWF/PA)

“The footage has already made us reassess their behaviour, with the sharks appearing to spend much more time swimming just above the seabed than we previously thought. 

“It really brings home why it’s so important that the species and its habitat are protected by designating the Sea of the Hebrides as a Marine Protected Area.”

Dr Matthew Witt, of the University of Exeter, said: “This year saw the culmination of a decade of work at Exeter to support the conservation of this species. In collaboration with SNH, we have deployed state of the art equipment over several years to learn of the behaviours of these elusive animals.

“This year, our collaborative efforts expand with exciting new partners, to bring advanced video techniques to help reveal even greater detail on the underwater lives of these animals. 

“Our efforts and resulting information highlight why the proposed MPA is important for securing a more positive conservation future for this iconic Scottish species.”

HeraldScotland: The rear view of a basking shark as it feeds on plankton (Photo: Alexander Mustard/PA)The rear view of a basking shark as it feeds on plankton (Photo: Alexander Mustard/PA)

It is hoped that further analysis of the many hours of video footage from the AUV, as well as visuals from towed camera tags attached to the sharks and the deployment of advanced sonar imaging, will uncover more about the underwater behaviour, social interactions, group behaviour and courtship of the species.

Amy Kukulya, WHOI Research Engineer and SharkCam Principal Investigator, said: “Every time we deploy REMUS SharkCam, we learn something new about the species we are studying.This year, our collaborative efforts expand with exciting new partners, to bring advanced video techniques to help reveal even greater detail on the underwater lives of these animals

“We’re able to remove the ocean’s opaque layer and dive into places never before possible with this ground-breaking technology answering questions about key species and revealing new ones.”

The MPA consultation runs until August 30 and members of the public can give their views here.