The North Sea is notoriously treacherous, with its swift currents and cold temperatures, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying its spiritual and physical benefits.
A survey conducted by students at the Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences found that around 55% of respondents like swimming in the North Sea, even though they would rather not swim anywhere that sharks occur – like in the North Sea?!
Yes, it’s true, there are sharks in the North Sea, but not the kind that usually makes the headlines, although that could soon change.
With the temperature of the North Sea gradually rising, the chances of encountering a shark also increase, with studies showing that “Shark populations may shift range as the oceans heat up, bringing them into greater conflict with humans.”
At present, however, you have little to fear. Sure, a few sharks swim in the North Sea, but none are particularly dangerous or aggressive.
What Sharks Live in the North Sea?
There’s every chance you’ve never heard of the small-spotted catshark, but you’re probably familiar with the lesser spotted dogfish, which is the same thing. They didn’t change their spots – just their name!
Since the 1970s, small-spotted catsharks have become the most common sharks in the North Sea, overtaking the spiny dogfish, whose numbers are rapidly declining. The small-spotted catshark has a comparatively stable population and is rarely targeted by commercial fishing operations.
While there is some demand for small-spotted catshark, you’ll rarely see them advertised, as the meat is usually sold as ‘sea-eel’ or ‘salmon,’ presumably because the idea of eating either dog or cat is off-putting to many!
Small-spotted cat shark is found across the North Sea and most of the northeastern section of the Atlantic Ocean. They live close to the bottom of the ocean, over gravel, sand, or mud, where they hunt for bottom-dwelling bony fish, crabs, worms, and whelks.
Also known as the spurdog, the spiny dogfish was once the most abundant shark species in the North Sea. Still, it has been heavily targeted by commercial fishing operations, causing a dramatic decline.
Although they enjoy a wide distribution that includes the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans, they struggle to survive. The population of spiny dogfish in the North Pacific is now critically endangered, while the Black Sea population is vulnerable.
Despite these worrying numbers, the UK plans to reopen a fishery for the species. According to the Minister of Food, Farming, and Fisheries, Mark Spencer, “the latest evidence shows Northeast Atlantic spurdog stock is recovering and can support fishing landings in 2023 and 2024.”
Starry Smooth Hound
The Starry Smoothhound is a type of hound shark that gets its name from the starlike scattering of white markings along its back. It’s a long, thin shark that rarely exceeds 150 cm in length and weighs less than 5 kg.
If you often swim in the North Sea, you’ve probably shared the water with one of these sharks, as they prefer shallow, coastal waters, just as we do.
They’ll even occasionally enter estuaries and have been recently spotted in London’s River Thames.
However, the chances of seeing one in the North Sea are pretty slim as they are most active at night. They often travel and hunt in packs, seeking out crustaceans that they crush with their powerful jaws.
In addition to the lesser-spotted catshark, there are several other species of catshark lurking beneath the waves of the North Sea.
Worldwide, there are over 150 species of catshark, all of which share certain characteristics, including their cat-like eyes and long, slender bodies.
Some of the species found in the North Sea include the blackmouth catshark and the misleadingly named nursehound, or large-spotted dogfish.
Catsharks are relatively small, with most species measuring just 60 to 70 cm long, which means they’re too small to attack or injure a human, even if they wanted to.
Catsharks are generally quite secretive, and rarely aggressive, which means it’s perfectly safe to swim with them.
In the North Sea, they frequent weed-covered sandbanks where they can find plenty of prey. They also attach their egg cases, or mermaid’s purses, to the weed, where they stay tethered until the baby catsharks hatch some 11 months later.
After hatching, the empty cases become more buoyant and often wash ashore, where keen beachcombers find them.
In 2003, the Shark Trust launched the Great Eggcase Hunt, which helps beachcombers identify and report egg cases, and the Dutch Shark Society has been busy coordinating the Dutch arm of this initiative since 2014.
The porbeagle shark is a large, predatory species found in cold and temperate waters. It is known to occur in the North Sea but is not commonly encountered as they prefer deep waters several miles offshore.
The cousin of the infamous great white, the porbeagle is endothermic, which means it can maintain a higher body temperature, enabling it to move quickly in cold water.
The porbeagle is a large and aggressive predator but rarely attacks humans. Despite that, it is responsible for one of the worst shark attacks in the North Sea in recent history.
In May 2018, a fisherman was bitten on the leg after a porbeagle was accidentally hauled onto the boat.
Understandably, the director of conservation with the Shark Trust, Ali Hood, felt that calling the incident an attack “is entirely misleading” since the shark was out of the water and being handled by its victim.
Basking sharks are found throughout the North Atlantic, including the North Sea, which poses little threat to anything larger than a paper clip.
As filter feeders, basing sharks feed exclusively on plankton and other microscopic organisms, which they filter out of the water with their long gill rakes.
The basking shark is the largest yet least dangerous of all the North Sea sharks. They are non-aggressive creatures more likely to cause injury with their rough skin than their minuscule teeth.
Although they are generally slow-moving creatures, basking sharks can accelerate quickly when they want to, and studies show they “can jump as fast and as high out of the water” as the great white.
This doesn’t mean “that basking sharks are secretly fierce predators tearing round at high speed,” however. As Dr. Jonathan Houghton, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology at Queen’s University Belfast, notes, “They are still gentle giants munching away happily on zooplankton.”
Does the North Sea have Sharks?
In addition to the species listed above, a couple of other sharks may stray into the North Sea from time to time.
Other sites wrestling with the question, “What sharks are there in the North Sea?” often list these species, even though they spend little time in the area and are rarely seen.
These species include:
- Common Thresher Shark
- Oceanic Whitetip
- Shortfin Mako Shark
- Blue Shark
- Greenland Shark
- Smooth Hammerhead
- Bluntnose Sixgill
- Common Angel shark
Are there any Dangerous Sharks Living in the North Sea?
If anyone asks me, “Are there dangerous sharks in the north sea?” I’ll generally tell them no, but that might not be the most accurate (or responsible) answer to give.
The most dangerous shark you’ll likely encounter in the North Sea is the Oceanic Whitetip, but the chances are slim. Oceanic Whitetips spend most of their time further south, where the waters are warmer and their prey more abundant.
Oceanic Whitetips are aggressive, opportunistic hunters that the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau regarded as “the most dangerous of all sharks.”
Their preference for open water and tendency to stay far from shore means encounters between these predatory sharks and humans are infrequent, but when they do occur, they’re often violent.
A month before writing this article, Colombian free diver Cristian Castano was injured after being attacked by an Oceanic Whitetip.
Attacks of this nature are not uncommon, and experts believe such aggressive behavior could be due to “a lack of food source due to overfishing.”
No shark attacks in the North Sea have been attributed to the Oceanic Whitetip.
Although Cousteau feared the Oceanic Whitetip more than any other shark, most of us are more concerned about the notoriously dangerous great white, which has, according to the International Shark Attack File, killed at least 59 people in nearly 300 attacks.
Are there Great White Sharks in the North Sea?
While there have not been any confirmed sightings of great whites in the North Sea, experts believe their presence is possible, if not likely.
According to one report, the temperature of the North Sea is “perfectly within the white shark’s 3.4℃ to 26℃ (38-79℉) tolerance.”
There are also plenty of seals, which are a significant food source for the great white. Great whites also travel huge distances and are some of the world’s most widely distributed shark species.
While there is no concrete evidence proving the presence of great whites in the North Sea, there’s also minimal evidence to the contrary.
In all likelihood, great whites occasionally traverse these chilly waters, but only in small numbers due to their global scarcity.
Another shark that strikes fear into the hearts of many is the bull shark – a tenacious creature with a widely varied diet.
Fortunately for those that enjoy a dip in the North Sea, the bull shark prefers warmer waters of around 32℃ (89℉) and is endothermic, so can’t maintain a higher body temperature like the porbeagle or great white.
This means they’re unlikely to enter cooler waters as their body temperatures will drop, negatively impacting the mobility and speed they need to hunt.
Shark Attacks in the North Sea
Sharks attacks in the North Sea are extremely rare, and there is only one such attack on record.
In 1960 an 18-year-old fisherman was bitten on the arm after accidentally netting a shark. The species of shark was never identified.
All the recorded North Sea shark attacks have been provoked, with most involving a fisherman trying to release or return a captured shark to the sea.
As Ali Hood asserts, calling these attacks is misleading, suggesting that the shark is aggressively seeking to injure or kill the human when, in fact, they’re just fighting for survival.
Are there Tours to go Snorkeling or Diving with Sharks in the North Sea?
Although there are plenty of opportunities to go snorkeling or diving in the North Sea, no operators offer shark-specific tours, probably due to the lack of sharks!
Sure, you might glimpse a catshark on a reef or beach dive in the Oosterschelde, but the chances are pretty slim.
Are there more Sharks in UK waters or in Dutch Waters?
The UK is surrounded by water, with the North Sea on the eastern side and the North Atlantic to the west, so there tend to be more sharks around the UK than we see in Dutch waters.
The Atlantic Ocean “is home to around 50 of the world’s 500 species of shark,” so although not all of them venture as far north as the UK, there are more sharks in UK waters as a result.
By comparison, there are just 18 shark species in Danish waters, which include the Baltic Sea, and even fewer in Dutch waters, where the North Sea dominates the entire coastline.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.