Sharks & Rays in British Waters

Sharks & Rays
Sharks & Rays

That which follows is a list of sharks and rays that have been caught in UK territorial waters (e.g. 12 nautical miles/22.2 km from the coast). The list makes no assumptions about residency of any of the listed species, nor does it suggest that all these sharks and rays can still be found in our waters. Species listed in blue are species dubium, owing to only one confirmed specimen from the UK. The only record of the bigeye thresher (Alopias superciliosus) of which I'm aware, for example, is a single 4.8 m (15.7 ft.) female landed at Newlyn fish market in Cornwall on 22nd August 1995 after having become trapped in a drift net in the Porcupine Sea-Bight. Please note that the Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is not included in this list owing the a lack of any confirmed evidence for this species' presence - see my article on British Great white shark for more details.

In addition to those listed below there have been several unconfirmed reports of more exotic species. A letter to the Morning Herald, for example, described how the head of a man was found in the stomach of a 3.6m (12 ft.) tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) that was hacked to death by beachgoers after beaching itself in Brighton, Sussex during September 1875. Also in September, but 1937, the East Galway Democrat reported that a five metre (15 ft.) tiger shark was short by police at a bathing site in Salthill, Galway (Ireland) but I have been able to find no further details. Interestingly, I have come across confident-sounding statements online that we get relatively frequent visits from tiger sharks, but I know of no confirmed report of this species from anywhere around the UK coast. More recently, a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), normally a species of tropical waters, was apparently spotted by two divers on the seafloor near Alderney in the Channel Islands during July 2001, while, in August 2005, a surfer reported seeing a 1.8 m (6 ft.) bull shark (Carcharhinus leucus) off the coast of Sennen, near Lands End in western Cornwall, but no photos exist of the encounter and I have seen only a vague description; hence it remains unconfirmed. Interestingly, reports I've seen on social media seem to refer to bull sharks having been seen off Cornwall in 2006 and 2013, but the very sketchy details seem to match with the 2005 report and I can find no further information on sightings in either year. Similarly, I would be interested to hear from readers who can provide details of confirmed bull or tiger shark sightings from British waters.

A Blue shark (Prionace glauca) swimming near the surface. This species is a resident of British offshore waters. - Credit: Victoria Hoete-Dodd

Sharks (36 species)

Superorder: Galeomorphi

A Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), one of the fastest shark species in the oceans today. - Credit: Andy Murch

Order: Lamniformes (Mackerel sharks)

Family: Alopiidae—Thresher sharks
Bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus)
Common thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus)

Family: Cetorhinidae—Basking sharks
Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus)

Family: Lamnidae—Mackerel sharks
Porbeagle shark (Lamna nasus)
Shortfin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus)

Family: Odontaspididae—Sandtiger sharks
Smalltooth sandtiger shark (Odontaspis ferox) *

* This is normally a tropical species that is now known from three confirmed specimens from around the UK in 2023. The first was a 1.8m (6 ft.) female that washed up at Lepe in Hampshire (England) on 18th March, the second a 4m (13 ft.) female washed up on a rocky shore at Kilmore Quay in Wexford (Northern Ireland) on 31st March, and the third a 3m (10 ft.) male found floating dead in the water off Lyme Regis in Dorset (England) by a fisherman on 1st May.

Order: Carcharhiniformes (Ground sharks)

Family: Carcharhinidae—Whaler / Requiem sharks
Blue shark (Prionace glauca)

Family: Galeorhinidae—Houndsharks
Tope shark (Galeorhinus galeus)

Family: Pseudotriakidae—False catsharks
False catshark (Pseudotriakis microdon) *

Family: Scyliorhinidae—Catsharks
Blackmouth catshark (Galeus melastomus)
Greater spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus stellaris) - Sometimes referred to as the nursehound.
Iceland catshark (Apristurus laurissoini)
Mouse catshark (Galeus murinus)
Smallspotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) - Sometimes referred to as the chained, or common dogfish.
White ghost catshark (Apristurus aphyodes)

Family: Sphyrnidae—Hammerhead sharks
Smooth hammerhead shark (Sphyrna zygaena)

Family: Triakidae—Smoothhound sharks
Common smoothhound (Mustelus mustelus)
Starry smoothhound (Mustelus asterias)

* This species is now known from two specimens, both from Scotland. One was recorded during a Scottish Shark Tagging Programme survey in 2000, and the second, a 3.5 m (11.5 ft.) female, released after being landed at a fish market May 2015.

Superorder: Squalomorphi

A Small-spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula). This is sometimes erroneously called a "lesser-spotted dogfish", but is not a member of the dogfish family. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Order: Chlamydoselachiformes (Frilled sharks)

Family: Chlamydoselachidae—Frilled sharks
Frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus)

Order: Echinorhiniformes (Bramble / Prickly sharks)

Family: Echinorhinidae—Bramble sharks
Bramble shark (Echinorhinus brucus)

Order: Hexanchiformes (Cow sharks)

Family: Heptranchiidae—Sharpnose sevengill sharks
Sharpnose sevengill shark (Heptranchias perlo)

Family: Hexanchidae—Cow sharks
Bluntnose sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus)

Order: Squaliformes (Dogfish sharks)

Family: Centrophoridae—Gulper sharks
Birdbeak dogfish (Deania calcea)
Leafscale gulper (Centrophorus squamosus)

Family: Dalatiidae—Kitefin sharks
Kitefin shark (Dalatias licha)

Family: Etmopteridae—Lantern sharks
Black dogfish (Centroscyllium fabricii)
Greater lanternshark (Etmopterus princeps)
Velvet belly lanternshark (Etmopterus spinax)

A Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus); the second largest shark species in the world and the largest found in British waters. - Credit: yohancha

Family: Oxynotidae—Rough sharks
Angular rough shark (Oxynotus centrina)
Sailfin rough shark (Oxynotus paradoxus)

Family: Somniosidae—Sleeper sharks
Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus)
Knifetooth dogfish (Scymnodon ringens)
Longnose velvet dogfish (Centroscymnus crepidater)
Portuguese dogfish (Centroscymnus coelolepis)

Family: Squalidae—Dogfish sharks
Spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) - right

Order: Squatiniformes (Angel sharks)

Family: Squatinidae—Angel sharks
Angel shark (Squatina squatina)

Skates & Rays (26 species)

Superorder: Batoidiomorphi

Order: Myliobatiformes (Stingrays)

Family: Myliobatidae—Eagle rays
Common eagle ray (Myliobatis aquila)
Devil ray (Mobula mobular)

Order: Rajiformes (Skates)

Family: Dasyatidae - Stingrays
Common stingray (Dasyatis pastinaca)

A Thornback ray (Raja clavata). - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Family: Rajidae—Skates
Arctic skate (Amblyraja hyperborea)
Bigelow's ray (Rajella bigelowi)
Blonde ray (Raja brachyura)
Blue ray (Neoraja caerulea)
Common skate (Dipturus batis)
Cuckoo ray (Leucoraja naevus)
Deepwater ray / Abyssal skate (Rajella bathyphila)
Longnosed skate (Dipturus oxyrinchus)
Norwegian / Black skate (Dipturus nidarosiensis)
Pale ray (Bathyraja pallida)
Richardson's ray (Bathyraja richardsoni)
Round ray (Rajella fyllae)
Sandy ray (Leucoraja circularis)
Shagreen ray (Leucoraja fullonica)
Small-eyed ray (Raja microocellata)
Spine-tailed ray (Bathyraja spinicauda)
Spotted ray (Raja montagui)
Starry ray / Thorny skate (Amblyraja radiata)
Thornback ray (Raja clavata)
Undulate ray (Raja undulata)
White skate (Rostroraja alba)

Order: Torpediniformes (Electric rays)

Family: Torpedinidae—Electric rays
Atlantic torpedo ray (Torpedo nobiliana)
Spotted electric ray (Torpedo marmorata)

The current state of batoid classification is anything but resolved and there is still much to be untangled. The phylogeny used above is that proposed by McEachran and Aschliman (2004).

References used in the composition of this list include Philip Vas' book Sharks of British Coastal Waters (1991), the Collins Pocket Guide to Fish of Britain and Europe by Peter Miller and Michael Loates (1997), Bob Earll's 1994 article to the journal British Wildlife, and Leonard Compagno's Sharks of the World (1984) with amendments made according to his 2001 and 2005 revisions. Additional species were added via personal communication from Douglas Herdson (Marine Fish Information Services, Plymouth), Dr. Paul Crozier (Scottish Association of Marine Science), Dirk Hovestadt and Martin Cadee. I am sincerely grateful to each of these people for their assistance compiling the list.

Sharks & Rays in British Waters in detail


Fauna Britannica - by Stefan Buczacki
Hamlyn Publishing -- 2002 -- ISBN: 978-0600598671

The New Amateur Naturalist - by Nick Baker
HarperCollins Publishers -- 2004 -- ISBN: 978-0007157310