The art of swimming with sharks

Miriam Sentler on how swimming influenced her artistic method in a recent trip to the Hebrides

Artist Miriam Sentler studied memoirs of Hebridean shark hunters before undertaking a trip to the Scottish islands of Mull and Coll, during which she hoped to encounter a basking shark. But swimming taught her to leave expectations behind.

In July 2021, I set out to the Scottish Isles of Mull and Coll to search for the plankton-feeding basking shark. The goal was to make an artistic work about the encounter with the maritime animal, showcasing a modern endeavour of ‘hunting’ a shark in the Hebrides. My interest in the shark began while looking into the origins of the oil industry in this area. Up until 1994, the basking shark was hunted solely for its liver oil, which was used as an industrial lubricant and as a medicine against respiratory illness and infertility.

These intimate uses of shark liver oil fascinated me due to my own personal relationship with fossil fuel; a material which caused the disappearance of my grandfather’s birthplace in Germany. His geographical birthplace now lies within a lake, which is a former lignite excavation site filled with water. In order to reach the village, one must dive 40 meters down into a dark pit – a physical separation which is almost impossible to overcome. Motivated to transgress this fluid barrier, I started a project about the fossil fuel industry and the liquid landscapes it is connected to. As part of the project, I planned a trip to the Inner Hebrides, which is well-known for the extensive shark hunt which took place here in the last century.

In order to get close to the shark and its territories, I needed to develop my wild swimming skills and prepare my body for the cold water and rough nature of the Atlantic Ocean. I have always felt drawn to the water, but it was relatively sparse in the area where I grew up. In west Germany, the only outdoor swimming spots were former excavation sites. In the last few years, I have started to see swimming as a way of entering a changed landscape; of getting closer to the sunken subjects of my interest and to experience them in more intimate ways. These ranged from former villages in excavation lakes in Germany to the oil-producing basking shark in the waters off the Scottish isles, which was now the focus of my new endeavour. However, this was also my first experience on the open sea, and I foresaw that swimming in the Atlantic would need some physical and mental preparation.

After Miriam's first swim on Coll, July 2021. Photo: Sadie Hale

I decided to apply to KNOCKvologan, a research hub for artists, scientists and writers situated on the remote coast of western Scotland, together with my project partner Sadie Hale, an environmental researcher. I wanted to get familiar with the Atlantic Ocean and its ways during two weeks leading up to my shark expedition on the open sea. During this time, I took many wild swims with my underwater camera, trying to get familiar with cold water swimming and underwater filming. Here I also met Outdoor Swimming Society founder Kari Furre, who inspired me to take wild swimming serious as an artistic method; as a way of connecting to the landscape in more tactile and sensitive ways. 

While on the Ross of Mull, I got used to the cold temperature of the water (11 degrees) and to the changing tides, which are twice daily and can have up to four metres difference. Once, I tested the coldness of the water by staying in for an hour, after which I did not warm up properly for the rest of the day, despite hot soups, drinks, showers and blankets. This first experience showed me my physical limitations and gave me a good measure of when to get out of the water – when you are still warm. 

The second prominent feature of the landscape I learned the hard way. While out snorkelling, all my belongings were taken by the upcoming tide. Panicking, I dived for my clothes, purse and phone floating in the rough waves hitting the rocks. I lost a shoe that day and ruined my phone, and returned to the residence with a broken sense of confidence in my judgement. Being so violently surprised by water had shaken me to the core; the sheltered coast which I thought to know well by now was transformed by a huge new-moon flood, and the whole landscape changed so severely that I did not recognise it anymore. The sea taught me a valuable lesson before I set out to open sea: always stay aware of its continues and rapid changes while in the water.

Miriam Sentler swimming on the Isle of Coll, July 2021. Photo: Sadie Hale

The swimming bonded me with the landscape, humbled me and reduced my expectations towards the wild animal I was hoping to encounter within a vast seascape orchestrated by the elements.

I arrived on Coll and after one more joyous wild swim from the island, it was time to go on board. On the tiny boat, the realisation that we were looking for a needle in a haystack started to creep up on us. Adding the foggy weather and a late plankton bloom, I started to see my own naiveté in relation to the vast and mysterious sea I embarked upon. Next to struggling with my wetsuit, which was 8mm thick and extremely buoyant, I felt seasick continuously. Swimming was my only remedy during the trip; getting into the cold water helped me to get rid of the noxious shakiness I felt and helped me to reground in this unforgiving landscape. During our three-day trip, we had no wildlife encounters to distract us; just a choppy and misty sea, eight hours a day. Although my swimming techniques were pretty worthless with the new equipment and my sickness on the sea, I did achieve something much more valuable during my preparation time: I was feeling confident about my relationship with the Atlantic and I felt my limitations and capabilities very well during the daring swims we took from the boat.

My new confidence helped me tremendously while exploring 150 nautical miles of the Atlantic, in patches of rough water I would have never dared to swim in before my practice. Encountering big swells and wavy seas, I snorkelled in Fingal’s Cave on the coast of Mull and saw many other parts and angles of the remote Hebrides, the home of the basking shark and one the historical and natural bases of oil production. Swimming gave me a completely different access to these waters, which I had only known from the memoirs of the shark hunters; it enabled me to get close to it in ways with were much more valuable for the project than I anticipated.

The swimming bonded me with the landscape, humbled me and reduced my expectations towards the wild animal I was hoping to encounter in a vast seascape orchestrated by the elements. While being on the boat, we learned that our endeavours were of a very similar nature as the ones of the shark hunters. We were also endlessly scanning the ocean for a sign of a fin, wiping our lenses continuously while waiting feverishly for the encounter with the animal. We even stabilised our camera in the same way as the shark hunters used to steady their harpoons, ready to shoot as soon as the animal appeared from the waves. After two days without a shark, my O-Ring (a waterproofing seal for the camera) broke and my hope for capturing a shark on this trip faded. At that moment, I slowly started to understand that my wish to encounter and film the shark was of a masculine mindset not fitting with this environment; I was not in the place to demand or extract anything from the sea. Instead, the sea invited me to open up to what it really was, letting go of my expectations and assumptions. From that moment on, the camera stayed on the boat, allowing me to experience the sea around me in much more tangible ways.

In the end, we never encountered the basking shark, which only spends 10 percent of its life on the water surface to feed on plankton. The non-encounter became the subject of the project, which now centred around romantic expectations towards nature, water and wildlife encounters and the new kind of industry taking hold on the basking shark and its natural sea surroundings: wildlife tourism. By not showing itself, the shark stayed mysterious, a creature of our minds, keeping its autonomy and opening us up to a reflection on our own cultural perception of nature and wildlife. The sea gives and takes, and during my stay, it provided me with a humble mindset with which to experience the home of the shark, while being at the water’s graceful mercy.

  • Find out more about Miriam’s work here
Miriam Sentler