On Sharks Unseen

Oceanic Non-Encounters and Multispecies Ethnography


  • Sadie E Hale




sharks, multispecies ethnography, Hebrides, basking shark, endangered species, absence, attentiveness


Basking sharks are the planet’s second-largest fish, and in the summer they feed on plankton in the Sea of the Hebrides, in Scotland. Once hunted for the oil contained in their livers, basking sharks are now a protected species, with tour companies offering the possibility to see and even snorkel with them. There is no guarantee of a sighting, however. This essay takes as its point of departure one such unsuccessful attempt to find basking sharks, undertaken as part of a research trip to learn about the history of shark hunting in the north-east Atlantic. Engaging with literature from multispecies ethnography, the essay considers the implications of treating absences as a condition of research on underwater species. It asks what form the tenets of multispecies ethnography – such as arts of attentiveness, immersion, and sustained participation in the lives of others – can take in oceanic settings. It suggests that direct observation cannot always account for relations with the unseen, and that methodologically and conceptually, the non-encounter offers a way of thinking through the ways that human activity can contribute to the loss of other species.