Red Sea, white death: tourism cops a mauling

Sharks have killed a tourist and maimed four others at an idyllic Egyptian resort. Kira Cochrane reports on the questions and theories behind this sudden surge of attacks.

Last Thursday it seemed the miscreants had been caught and disaster averted. After highly unusual shark attacks in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the authorities had been on the hunt for the culprits and it appeared they had triumphed quickly and cleanly.

Four attacks had taken place the previous Tuesday and Wednesday, with three Russians and one Ukrainian left with terrible injuries; one reportedly lost her right hand and left leg, and another sustained injuries to her legs and back, also lost a hand, had a heart attack and had to be resuscitated.

The attacks were attributed to two sharks, which were soon brought in by a mission mounted by the Environment Ministry. Footage showed one shark, an oceanic whitetip, being hauled onto a small fishing boat - its dead body cut and bloodied - hoisted by its eye sockets, turned over, its belly slashed open. A very public, very decisive slaying.

It was said that this 2.25-metre-long adult shark matched the description of one seen by an Egyptian diver who had rescued one of the injured tourists; it apparently had the same damage to its dorsal fin. Case closed.

The winter-sun season - that tranquil round of reading, sunbathing and snorkelling for which millions of tourists a year flock to the Sinai shore - could continue.

The next day, Nick Treadwell, a Briton, went to Ras Mohammed for a diving trip. An experienced diver, he set off on a boat trip with 10 snorkellers and a couple of other people who, like him, would be scuba diving. ''We did our first dive of the morning, and that was great,'' he says. The second dive was much less placid.

Treadwell was down about 14 metres with an instructor. Looking up, they saw, above the scuba divers, and below the snorkellers, a large shark, more than two metres long, was slowly circling the group. The instructor free-dived down a few metres and then started corkscrewing to the surface, blowing bubbles, to try to scare the shark away.

''He went to the top and shouted, 'Shark, shark, shark - everyone get to the reef.' Everyone started swimming as fast as they could, because the reef was too shallow for the shark, so it would be a safe place. But there was an older lady, probably in her late 60s, who was slightly hard of hearing, and she was delayed. The shark started coming towards her, and she ended up kicking it in the face a couple of times, and using her underwater camera to whack it over the head. She got away, but she had cuts all over her legs.''

Two days later, another tourist was not so lucky. An elderly German woman, snorkelling just a short way off the Sharm el-Sheikh coast, was bitten on the thigh and arm and died almost immediately.


Ellen Barnes, a British tourist in the water at the time, described the scene: ''The water was churning like I was in a washing machine. I was being thrown around in the blood. The shark was thrashing and tearing at this poor woman and I could barely keep my head above the water.''

The shark threat that had apparently been quashed was suddenly alive again and more terrifying than ever.

Speaking on Monday, the South Sinai Governor, Mohammed Shosha, said: ''We did catch the sharks,'' before adding, ''There is another shark.''

The attacks are a strange, sudden and frightening occurrence for a resort known for the beauty and safety of its waters.

Simon Rogerson, editor of Dive magazine and author of the book Dive Red Sea, said ''generally it's a really good place … Whatever is going on there is an anomaly, and we'll only find out in time what's really happening.''

The Egyptian authorities will be hoping for a verdict very soon; it is thought that beach tourism contributes 66 per cent of the $US12.3 billion that Egypt's travel industry will bring in this year.

Besides the location, another factor that has sparked surprise has been the nature of the culprit. As the shark hunt showed, it is thought that the species behind these attacks is the oceanic whitetip, which is not usually associated with such incidents - the 60 or so shark attacks that take place around the world each year are much more likely to be associated with great whites, tiger or bull sharks.

Oceanic whitetips are not known for active aggression, but they do have a reputation - rightly or wrongly - for preying on humans when they are already vulnerable. In cases of shipwreck, or planes crashing into the sea, it has entered the popular imagination that these sharks often end up circling and killing people.

It is not clear why these attacks are happening right now. Ali Hood, director of conservation for the Shark Trust, said that ''to have a cluster of events, a spate of attacks of this nature in one place, is extremely surprising. What is important to consider is that these attacks were probably triggered by a particular activity or event, something man has done, rather than something that the sharks have initiated. Something new has occurred for them to behave in this manner.''

Over the past week, one theory after another has been suggested. One put forward by the director of South Sinai Conservation, Mohammed Salem, is that the attacks stem from uncontrolled fishing in popular diving areas - that sharks are having to become bolder and more aggressive in their hunt for prey, owing to a growing shortage of their natural food in the ocean.

Another is that they are being attracted to humans as a result of baited dives and ''chumming''. This is the practice whereby fish blood or flesh is placed in the water to attract sharks for people who are involved in organised dives. Rogerson said that baiting is ''illegal in the Red Sea because of the types of sharks that they have there'' and that in his experience it doesn't happen.

''There's also all sorts of cargo shipping going up and down the Suez canal, and through the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, and I'm sure they're not too bothered about little local rules about whether you can throw stuff off your boat,'' Rogerson said.

There have been allegations that large cargoes of dead sheep from Australia have been dumped in the sea, after dying en route to Egypt - and it seems likely that plenty of other theories will keep swirling in the coming weeks.

For now, many of Sharm el-Sheikh's beaches are back open for experienced divers, and the area is swarming with shark experts. The messages coming out of the resort, from the travel industry, and government offices all over the world, are anxious and often contradictory. The truth is this: only time will tell whether it is really safe to go back into the water.

Guardian News & Media