Sharks of Red Sea under spotlight after swimmer killed in Egypt

Fatal attacks have increased in the past 15 years

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A spate of shark attacks in the Red Sea has placed the spotlight on marine safety after a Russian man was mauled to death in the resort city of Hurghada.

The attack led the Egyptian authorities to order the closure of a 60km stretch of beach.

Authorities said a tiger shark was responsible for the attack. It was later captured.

Shark attacks are considered rare on the Red Sea coast but there have been more than a dozen cases in the past 15 years. In 2022, there were two fatal attacks in the same region, killing an Austrian and a Romanian tourist.

These types of circumstances are exceptional and rare but can happen because humans are more and more at sea
Dr Bruno Diaz Lopez, marine biologist, Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute

The two women were killed in separate shark attacks in Sahl Hasheesh, a high-end holiday spot known for its pristine sea water and golden sandy beaches. The body of a Romanian tourist in her forties was discovered hours later.

They said the attacks occurred with 600 metres of each other.

In 2020, a Ukrainian boy lost an arm and an Egyptian tour guide a leg in a shark attack.

A Czech tourist was killed by a shark off a Red Sea beach in 2018, three years after a German tourist died in a shark attack.

In 2010, a spate of shark attacks killed one European tourist and maimed several others in Sharm El Sheikh, a popular resort on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, across the Red Sea from Hurghada.

Man-made disruption of local habitat

Egypt's Red Sea resorts are among the country's major beach destinations and are popular with European tourists.

Dr Bruno Diaz Lopez, a marine biologist who is the founder and director of the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute, said other parts of the world tended to be associated with shark attacks more often than the Red Sea.

“In South Africa they're quite well known, in Australia there are certain areas. There are controls to avoid this type of event,” he said.

Overall, he said that shark attacks on people were very uncommon, but may be becoming more frequent in areas where there are growing numbers of people using the sea.

“These types of circumstances are quite exceptional and rare but can happen because humans are more and more at sea,” he said. “The people go for tourism. Fifty years ago there were none. There are more and more people on the coastline. The probability will increase.”

While not saying this was the case in the Red Sea, Dr Diaz said that in some places bait is provided to attract sharks so that divers can see them. There have been concerns raised that this could increase the likelihood of attacks.

“What they are doing is basically changing their behaviour,” Dr Diaz said.

Eid carcasses dumped by boats

Research from some locations where this takes place, such as the Bahamas, has not found an increase in attacks despite growth in the number of baited dives.

Sameh Mshaly, an experienced diver based in the area, said recurring shark attacks appear to take place annually at the same Hijiri time due to the presence of cattle boats in the area.

“The shark that attacked the tourist was frenzied,” Mr Mshaly said in a Facebook post. “Its diet and natural feeding patterns [have been] disrupted because of these livestock boats.”

Essam Omaria, an official at the Ministry of Environment, confirmed that shark behaviour changes significantly due to food and waste dumped from ships. This is particularly prevalent in the Red Sea Region.

Mr Omaria pointed out that it's crucial to understand that the marine ecosystem, which includes predatory sharks, responds to such human-induced changes in a manner than can lead to a rise in cases of aggression.

Updated: June 09, 2023, 11:30 AM