Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Above: Turtle Bunbury is all at sea.


Published Works



The tug on my line is perhaps stronger than the previous ones. But it’s still no shark. In fact, it’s just a slightly chubbier mackerel. I unclip the beady-eyed fish from the hook and fling it into a bucket. Luke Aston, skipper of the ‘Clare Dragoon’, watches with a look of patient disdain as the scarlet fish-blood swooshes across his pristine white boat.

The Atlantic Ocean is calm as a bathtub on the coast of Co Clare. A few minutes ago we watched a pair of dolphins gliding through the waters, pursued by guillemots and gulls. Across the Shannon Estuary, Mount Brandon gingerly pokes its peak out above the clouds and Ballybunnion strand glows a golden yellow. To the immediate south, the sheer sandstone cliffs of Loop Head are dramatically silhouetted in the hazy sunshine.

It was an altogether rougher ocean last Tuesday when Luke Aston took his charter boat out to this same spot with three Swiss fishermen. That afternoon, the Swiss struck lucky when a Bluntnose Sixgill Shark latched onto the line of Joe Waldis, a 70-year-old financier from Zurich. Of course, nobody knew Joe had caught a shark until it came to the surface. It took 35-minutes for him to wrestle the shark upwards and the Swiss pensioner panted and sweated like he was bench-pressing in a Scandinavian sauna. The others watched and waited. They knew it was a big catch and if anyone else had helped, Joe wouldn’t have been able to claim it.

As the tail appeared, Luke said: ‘Looks like you’ve caught a shark, Joe.’

‘Bloody hell,’ replied Joe.

When Joe caught sight of the shark’s huge opalescent eye staring at him from below the surface, he realised he was dealing with ‘a monster’. Little did he know that he had just landed the largest ever fish caught by a rod and line in Irish or British waters. He later likened the catch to ‘getting all your numbers in the Lotto’ and described it as ‘the fight of my life.’ He was still dreaming of the incident when he flew back to Switzerland on Saturday.

Joe’s shark was 12ft 9in long and weighed almost half a ton. Luke Aston strapped the shark to the back of the Clare Dragoon and towed it up the Shannon estuary to his home village of Carrigaholt. A friend fork-lifted the shark to a local quarry where the weigh bridge clocked it at 480kg (1056lb). The largest six-gill shark caught prior to this weighed 154lb (69.8kg), so Joe’s shark – whose liver alone weighed 314lb (143kg) - completely smashed the record. It also became the biggest fish caught in Irish waters, knocking out a Blue Fin Tuna that weighed 453kg (999 lb).

Luke Aston runs the Carrigaholt Sea Angling Centre and is Secretary of the Irish Charter Skippers Association. He maintains that Irish charter boats offer the best value in the world, which is why the Clare Dragoon is out and about almost every day from April through to Christmas. Fishermen can drop line for any of at least twenty species and his boat has never returned without a catch.

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Above: Deeply fishy.

As the villagers of Carrigaholt got stuck into eating some of the shark meat in the local Sealyons shop and The Long Dock restaurant, Luke received a couple of calls from those who felt it was wrong to catch the shark. They reasoned that the animal should have been caught and released.

Luke prides himself on having one of the biggest ‘catch and release’ records on the west coast of Ireland. Last year, the Clare Dragoon caught another, possibly larger Sixgill shark. The Dutchman who caught it agreed to release it back into the water before it could be weighed. When Joe Waldis reeled in his magnificent shark last week, he said he wanted to bring it ashore. Luke Aston happily assisted, maintaining that the catch should simply stand as a glowing testament to the ability and resolve of a 70-year-old fisherman. ‘How can anyone object to a trophy like this when the commercial fleet is hauling in those huge sharks as by-catches every day?’ asks Luke.

As our boat chugs around Loop Head, I get to day-dreaming about a peaceful sun-drenched holiday I spent in Castletownsend earlier this month. One morning we espied the triangular dorsal fin of a large shark slaloming up and down the salty waters into which we had just hurled our children for an icy dip. ‘Don’t worry’, counselled a friend. ‘It’s probably harmless. These sharks are only interested in plankton’. He was probably right but nobody was about to swim out and enquire further.

The majority of sharks frequenting Irish waters are Blue sharks or Porbeagles. Once upon a time, there was a huge population of basking sharks, otherwise known as Sunfish because they tend to swim so close to the surface. Back in the 18th century, basking sharks were highly prized for their liver oil. In the absence of paraffin, this oil was considered ideal for lighting lamps. The streets of both Galway and Waterford were lit by shark oil up until at least 1742. The quest for shark oil inspired fishermen all along the west coast of Ireland to set forth in their currachs in pursuit of these big, dopey plankton-easting baskers.

The hunt became somewhat easier after 1760 when Donegal man Thomas Nesbitt invented the first swivel-gun harpoon. By the early 1800s, shark oil factories were to be found all along the Galway and Mayo coast and on the nearby islands. The oldest basking shark fishery on record was at Sunfish Bank, some 30 miles off Achill Island. On a good day, the currach fishermen would catch between thirty and forty of these harmless sharks. The shark’s enormous liver was removed, cut into chunks and the oil steamed out. A single basking shark could yield seven to ten barrels of oil.

The decline in the market for shark liver oil led to the collapse of the Sunfish fishery in the 1880s. Basking sharks were not actively targeted again off the west coast until 1947 when a new very localised fishery started at Keem Bay on Achill Island. This was an age before conservationism and the size of the Achill catches were staggering. By the time the fishery closed in 1975, over 12,000 sharks had been netted and killed. Most were caught in the 1950s with 1,808 killed in 1952 alone. Basking sharks are protected in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland but not in the Republic. However, the European Union has placed a moratorium on fishing for basking sharks in Irish waters. The positive effects of the moratorium are such that, earlier this month, scientists tagged a record fifty sharks in three days off the Donegal coast. (Normally they’d expect to tag fifty in a year).

The shark that Joe Waldris caught last week was a Bluntnose Sixgill Shark (Hexanchus griseus), a species that can be found in tropical and temperate seas from the Maldives to Vancouver. When divers in the Shetland Islands encountered an enormous Bluntnose shark a few years ago, they got out of the water with cartoonish haste. Nobody knows whether a Bluntnose shark would attack a human or not. Clad in wet-suits, we kind of look like seals and the Bluntnose does like to eat a good seal. Of course, Stephen Spielberg has a lot to answer for. ‘Jaws’, his Oscar-nominated 1975 blockbuster, sent shark PR plummeting to unchartered depths. Suddenly nobody gave a hoot about them. Kill 'em all, we screamed. How dare they tear Bo Derek in two like that! But boy do we kill them. It’s estimated that we kill upwards of 40 million sharks every year, mostly to make shark fin soup.

Sharks aren’t nearly as mean as humans. Only four species out of twenty-nine are known to attack without provocation and they kill less than ten people every year. (That said, they can be fussy eaters. When I was in Hong Kong, it transpired that all four victims of a killer shark were hairdressers).

The Bluntnose is the third largest predatory shark in all God’s oceans. A fully-grown adult is nearly 5 metres long, which may be two metres smaller than a typical Great White Shark, but its still darned scary. They have a broad stubby head, huge opalescent eyes, a very long tail and, as the name suggests, six gill openings. Their colour ranges from dark brown to dark silvery grey and there are unconfirmed reports that it can change colour for short periods of time. This would presumably help this lumbering creature get close enough to capture large fast-moving prey such as the seals which they have been known to swipe.

Generally these deep-water sharks hang about on continental and insular shelves and upper slopes, munching on smaller sharks, marlins, crabs and carrion. The Bluntnoses who come to Ireland are probably based along the shallow sides of the Rockall Trough, a 1,000 metre deep trench that runs from Iceland all the way down the west coast of Ireland to the Bay of Biscay.

Sometimes the younger and more feckless Bluntnoses stray into shallower waters looking for food. Inevitably, some of these audacious juveniles end up being snared in nets or, on a very rare occasion, caught on a line. Joe’s whopper must have been an adult and to look at the size of its body, it is astonishing that it did not break the gear and escape.

I am shaken from my reverie by another tug on the line. My imagination briefly goes into turbo-drive. I envision myself face-to-face with a huge-gawping mouth, comb-like teeth ready to snap down upon me as, like Martin Brody, the police chief in ‘Jaws’, I pull the trigger on my rocket-launcher and shout out ‘Smile, you son of a bitch!’ But when I reel in the line, I see it’s just another mackerel. Don’t worry Joe. Your record is safe for now.

With thanks to Angus Craigie and Tom Sykes.


From Ennis, head south west via Kilrush and Kilkee to Carriagholt.


You can’t go wrong with Luke and Mary Aston's B&B at Rahona as they also run the Carrigaholt Sea Angling Centre