Shark specialists puzzled by recent attacks

Ahram Online, Saturday 11 Dec 2010

Sharks of different species are behind recent attacks on tourists at Egypt's Red Sea, a US marine biologist says

Emtpy beach Photo: AP
A general view showing a partially empty beach at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Hussien Talal)

Asked about the recent shark attacks in Egypt's Red Sea, marine biologist George Burgess told the BBC that a single shark had carried out two of the attacks, while a different species was responsible for the other two. Burgess also said that environmental effects had caused the "highly unusual" spate of attacks.

A German woman was killed and four people were injured in last week's attacks. Many of the main beaches have been closed to swimmers and snorkelers since Sunday's deadly attack.In the meantime, Burgess advised people to swim in groups in areas inside the reef, and stay out of the water at night.

According to a report issued by the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), the recent shark bites are not new: “throughout the last six years a few incidents of oceanic white tips biting humans in the water were reported from the Central & Southern Egyptian Red Sea. Most of these cases could be linked to illegal feeding and/or baiting activity from liveaboards and all of them involved snorkelers.”

The Egyptian red sea is internationally renowned for underwater observation of oceanic white tip sharks. Their sighting has become a common occurrence since the late 1990s and they are often found off-shore, cruising upper see layers in search of food. Unlike other shark species in the area, which are easily intimidated by human presence, the white tips are self-confident and inquisitive. “This notorious boldness – often wrongly interpreted as aggression – results in close and memorable encounters for thousands of divers every year," said Dr. Elke Bojanowski, a biologist and the initiator of the longimanus-project of HEPCA. He added that indeed "a single large female oceanic white tip shark has been observed at the site of three attacks on swimmers, off Sharm El Sheikh, with eyewitness reports available for two.”

The shark is still believed to be in the general area, and – for the last eight days – followed a specific pattern, traveling between the area of the attacks north of Naama Bay to Ras Mohamed National Park, and back within 2-3 days.

“The severity of the attacks and the amount of human tissue taken (and potentially swallowed) indicates a clear deviation from the normal behaviour of an oceanic white tip shark. Instead of briefly grabbing for testing or tasting purposes, this female apparently considers human swimmers as a potential food source,” said Bojanowski.

Burgess seems to agree with Bojanowski's interpretation, claiming that "what you have here are rational attempts by a predator to find food."

The reason behind the change in the shark’s behaviour is puzzling to specialists. Researchers say that the dumping of animal carcasses in the area by a cargo ship last month might have contributed to the attacks by attracting the sharks to the shore. Other environmentalists believe that, baiting - feeding predators - can cause changes in their behavior, causing unpredictable and potentially dangerous interactions with them.

Between Tuesday, 30 November, and Sunday, 5 December, five swimmers were attacked by shark(s) off the South Sinai Coast.

The first two victims, two Russian women, were attacked on Tuesday while swimming off the beach. Both suffered multiple bites resulting in serious injuries. Minutes before one of these attacks, divers photographed a large adult female oceanic white tip and followed its movement as it approaching one of the swimmers.

The following day, two men – one Russian and one Ukrainian – were attacked a few kilometers north of where the first attacks had taken place. One of the victims was bitten once resulting in minor injuries while the other suffered multiple bites and serious injuries.

Consequently, all diving, snorkeling and other water sport activities were suspended in the Sharm El Sheikh area, with the exception of Ras Mohamed National Park.

By Thursday afternoon, pictures of two captured (and killed) sharks were published by officials, showing one male short fin mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus) and one female oceanic white tip shark. Comparing their natural markings and body proportions, it could be concluded immediately that neither was the same large female photographed at the site of the first attacks. Officials killed the sharks nonetheless.
The hunting and killing of the sharks was criticized by environmentalists, and according to Burgess, interviewed on the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme, a shark hunt was useless as the team had ruled out the existence of a so-called rogue shark that was acting like "a deranged human being taking lives."

That same Thursday, exploratory dives had been carried out by dive professionals along the Sharm El Sheikh coast. None had encountered any other sharks.

All restrictions on water activities were lifted and the beaches re-opened on the morning of Saturday, 4 December.

On Sunday, 5 December, around midday, a German swimmer was attacked by a shark in Garden Bay. She died on site from her injuries. A picture taken during the attack shows the same large female oceanic white tip shark that had been observed during Tuesday's attacks. Again, individual markings were used to verify her identity.

All beaches were immediately closed again, and only professional and experienced divers were allowed in the water, with further restrictions in place in the area of the attacks. These divers have been asked to report back on any shark activity in the area.

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