As is usually the case with Arabian shark incidents, getting the definitive detailed account of what happened is nigh on impossible. What I will cover below is based on media reports and information passed to me by trusted sources with working knowledge of the area and who have been in contact with people in positions of trust in the locations of the attacks.
Attack 1 - Olga Martsenko (48) & Evgeny Trishkin (30/11/10)
At the time of the attack, Russians, Olga and Evgeny, believed to be a couple, were snorkeling in deeper water off the reef. Details are sketchy at best but divers nearby claim to have been circled by a 2.5 metre Oceanic Whitetip only moments before it struck the couple, seriously injuring Evegeny's legs and removing Olga's hand.
Both victims made it ashore and were transferred to hospital in Cairo where they are described as in a critical condition but will both survive.
Attack 2 - Victor Koliy (46) (1/12/10)
Ukranian Victor, was attacked a few miles to the north of the attack on the Russian couple the previous day. Again, the victim was snorkeling and suffered what was described as "multiple" injuries to his legs. Fortunately, Victor has since been discharged from hospital and is believed to have returned to the Ukraine. Reports suggest that Victor was again, snorkeling farther out in deeper water from the reef's edge.
Attack 3 - German Woman (3/12/10) - Fatal
Details surrounding this attack are at present vague, some reports suggest her body washed on to the beach, others report that she was brought ashore by a lifeguard, however, what has come to light is that eye witnesses are claiming to have seen a shark which is considerably larger than the shark implicated in the first attack on the Russian couple.
The victim suffered large wounds to her mid to upper arm and her legs were badly mauled. Again, the victim was swimming in deeper water, this time off the private house reef of the Hyatt hotel, where she was a regular visitor.
Reports of a fourth attack and fifth victim have now been confirmed as false, the "victim" in question, a young Russian woman received lacerations to her hand, caused not by a shark, but by coral.
As is often the case in shark attacks, the extremities are the parts of the victim sustaining injuries, that is, the arms and legs, including hands and feet. What follows is my informed opinion, that doesn't make it fact, however, I am confident that I may well be accurate. We may never know exactly what happened but the purpose of this is to offer a more balanced account than that which you will find in the mainstream media. I haven't seen the bodies and I haven't had the benefit of speaking to eyewitnesses...
In the first attack, one interesting facet of the circumstances becomes clear, that the victims were snorkeling in close proximity to a group of divers. The couple were not the only people at the surface in the water and the divers saw the shark before it attacked. As I mentioned in the previous blog, when swimmers and snorkelers sustain injuries to their hands and arms, it is often in the event of the victim touching the shark, or attempting to fight off an attacking or aggressive shark. My guess is this, the shark, having circled the divers, was drawn to the couple at the surface, I would imagine the male of the couple was the first to be bitten, sustaining injuries to his legs whilst attempting to move away from the approaching shark or kicking out to defend himself. Upon seeing her companion struggling with the shark, has Olga attempted to help the victim, punching out at the shark or trying to push it away, thus encouraging the shark to bite her in self defence, removing her hand in the process?
It is most often the case in attacks on humans that a removal of a limb is the last act of an attacking shark so this would make sense. As is usually the case and having seen it myself, when snorkelers or swimmers are approached by an inquisitive shark, very few will respond in a calm manner, arms and legs are flailing and when "fight or flight" kicks in, "flight" is usually the course of action taken. If you are approached by an inquisitive or aggressive shark, to move away from the shark, attempting to escape, only encourages the shark to inspect you more closely and what is the part of the body nearest the business end of a shark in this scenario? The feet and lower legs, hence why believe the male was first to be bitten.
The same train of thought could be applied in the second attack, inquisitive shark approaches a snorkeler who attempts to escape or kick out at the shark and receives injuries to his lower legs. If a victim is attempting an escape, behaving like potential prey can illicit an appropriate reaction in a predatory animal, also, to defend one's self can be interpreted as an act of aggression on the victim's part and can again, illicit a response from the "attacking" animal.
In the instance of the fatal attack, what is it that caused the victim to unfortunately not survive? Was the attacker more aggressive or were the injuries more severe due to the size of the shark? Did the victim's own condition mean she was less able to withstand injuries a younger, fitter individual may have? We may never know but reports have suggested that people originally rushing to her aide, when realising what was happening left the water to find a vessel in which they could bring her ashore. It seems that the victim was further away from other bathers during this attack and assistance took longer to arrive, did that play a part in this incident ending with a fatality?
Should the final victim have been in the water in the first place? Did she even know about the attacks earlier that week? It isn't that ridiculous to suggest she may not have known, I know when I go on holiday, I don't watch television, I certainly don't bother reading newspapers in languages I can't understand and how likely is it that staff at the hotels were being particularly forthcoming about the events surrounding the previous attacks? In the event I find out more detailed information surrounding each or all of the attacks, I will of course post it and amend my theories if needed, accordingly.
The more astute reader will take note of the fact I have pluralised the above. The notion of a "rogue shark," so beloved by the press and armchair Matt Hooper is one I just don't buy I'm afraid. To justify that, let's look at the basic definition of what a "rogue shark" actually is. A rogue shark is "JAWS," a shark which actually swims around looking for people to bite or eat. Some animals do exhibit rogue tendencies, lions, tigers and crocodiles for example and the theory is based on evidence a rogue animal has a "taste for human flesh."
It is fairly widely known nowadays and certainly widely accepted, that sharks do not particularly care for the taste of human beings, in fact, only approximately 10-15 human beings have ever been totally consumed by a shark during an attack, that is, they were alive before coming into contact with a shark which then killed and ate them. It is certainly feasible that the number of unfortnates suffering this grisly fate could even be in single figures.
The examples used by fans of the rogue shark theory such as the Jersey Shore attacks in 1916 have since been proved far more likely, in fact almost beyond all doubt, to have been carried out by multiple sharks. Egypt has even had its own rogue shark conspiracy before, in the 1980's where three people were attacked on the same day in the Port Said area of Cairo. The incident was often used to support the rogue shark theory but neglected to mention the third victim (the first two were companions together) was injured many miles away and would have required the shark to sprint up the coast to find and attack him.
Human beings don't have the relevant nutritional value for sharks to get a taste for us, sharks aren't "killing machines" they are highly evolved predatory animals that do what they do, really, really well. They are not vindictive animals hell bent on the destruction of the human race but animals which sometimes make mistakes based on natural behaviour patterns.
The Oceanic Whitetip has taken a bit of a hammering in the press this week and as a large, bold and sometimes aggressive shark, commonly found in the area, it would make a likely suspect but let's not forget some of his mates who might also be worth a mention, the Tiger Shark, Silvertip Shark and the Great White.
The Oceanic Whitetip is big enough, aggressive enough and has the tools to have carried out these attacks, no question about that, however it is a pelagic species, not often found so close to beaches. That's not to say it's impossible, they have been encountered close inshore where reefs have steep drop offs, much like those in Sharm so it's not impossible they would be seen that near to a beach, very rare yes but not impossible.
The Tiger Shark has been surprisingly lacking in the press this week. She is big, heavy set and one of the few shark species capable of doing serious damage to a human being. The nearby Tiran Straits are home to a resident number of Tiger Sharks which are fairly regularly encountered by divers and unlike the Oceanic Whitetip, will regularly venture into shallow water.
Contrary to popular belief, Great White sharks do occur in warm water and even tropical locations, The Bahamas, Madagascar, Northern Australia, Tonga, The Seychelles, all of these places have recorded large numbers of verified Great White shark sightings and encounters, you can add the Red Sea to that as well. Great Whites do visit the Egyptian coast and at this time of year, with sea temperatures around the 23-25 degrees Celsius mark, they are more than capable of withstanding these temperate conditions and as we all know, are more than capable of inflicting serious injury with ease.
Isn't she beautiful! Yes she certainly is but the Silvertip is also a bulky, sometimes aggressive shark which has been involved in attacks on humans before. Silvertips are found in the waters around sharks and whilst also more commonly found in pelagic environments, do venture closer inshore with more regularity than the Oceanic Whitetip. The Silvertip is less twitchy than other requiem sharks, has an inquisitive nature and will attack if provoked, it also has the dental equipment to do some serious damage to the human body.
All these sharks have track records in wounding swimmers and divers, they all occur in the locality of the attacks and all could be considered possible suspects. Very few sharks have the tools to cut through bone, a pre-requisite if a human limb is removed in an attack. That also discounts the Mako caught by fishermen from the attack in which Olga lost her hand and lower arm.
The least likely culprit is the Great White, the other three however could all be reasonable suspects, could it be that a couple of species have been involved? Could it be that a couple of sharks of the same species have been involved? Very possibly. Could it be that one shark is responsible for all the attacks? I really don't think so.
In my opinion the most likely scenario is that the Oceanic Whitetip and Tiger Shark are the most likely suspects in one or all of the attacks. If this was happening in the Pacific Islands, Hawaii, Northern Australia, Florida or Durban for example, in similar conditions, the finger of blame would immediately be pointed at either the Tiger or the Bull Shark, with the absence of Bull Sharks from the area, is that to say it's reasonable to believe a Tiger Shark could be implicated in one of the attacks at least? In my mind yes, does it make it so? No but it is a possible scenario.
What do I mean by the above? Well, to put it simply, factors in the area which we either know for sure, or can reasonably be assumed to have happened given information from reliable sources.
I have not seen it with my own eyes but very trusted friends and colleagues have, it is widely accepted that some dive boats in the area are known for baiting the water to bring sharks closer to divers, in particular Oceanic Whitetip Sharks. Even more alarming is that on some of these boats it is claimed, operators encourage divers to pet the large sharks and bites have occurred because of this. These practices are often undertaken for predominantly Russian and Italian tourists who pay extra for the pleasure. Before you start using this as ammo to rail against the shark feeding industry, please bare in mind what I have said in a previous article on that specific subject, shark feeding dive operations and dive operations feeding sharks, are two very different things.
It is common practice for tourists to feed the fish close inshore. Not a massive problem you might think but if smaller fish are encouraged to hang around and propagate in bather heavy areas, don't be surprised if bigger fish fancy popping by to have a look as well.
Large pelagic fish in the Red Sea are in enormous decline, overfishing has taken a terrible toll on populations of pelagic species which in turn has affected the feeding practices of many predatory species. If you remove prey species in big enough numbers, it is going to affect the species which rely on them to feed as part of their natural diet. If we alter a species' natural predatory behaviours, it is likely they will adapt to that alteration. By that I mean if an animal naturally survives on rays for example, if the rays are all removed from an area, that predator either has to leave and find more rays or start finding other things to eat to survive which then has a knock on effect for that new prey item. Could this mean that larger sharks are moving closer inshore due to their being less prey in deeper waters? Maybe...
Perhaps most startling and telling, are reports that a merchant vessel transporting cattle and livestock to Jordan had jettisoned a number of the animals overboard in waters close to where the attacks took place as recently as the week before the attacks. Had the animals died on board and been disposed of overboard? This is not the first time this has happened. During the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, consignments of cattle were transported from South Africa through the Red Sea, this coincided with reports of dive groups encountering Great White Sharks off the coast of Sharm and also around the Brothers and Daedelus. I spoke with a dive guide in 2007 who had two encounters herself during 2001, she also happened to mention it was suggested that it may be best not to talk about it at the time due to fear of it affecting business. We will probably never know for definite whether the sharks followed the cattle transporters but it would be a valid explanation. As soon as the Great Whites appeared, they disappeared again after just over a month...
Also, when the French passenger plane crashed in the northern Red Sea in 2003, the number of sharks encountered by divers exploded and for around three months, large numbers of sharks were encountered with unusual frequency
A Valid Explanation?
I'm not saying this is what happened, it is merely what I think happened, if you want to either agree or disagree based on any additional information or feedback, I always welcome informed open discussion. So here goes...
It's no coincidence in my mind that a load of dead animals get dumped in the sea near to a popular tourist resort where the sea is full of swimmers, divers and snorkelers and a week or so later some people get bitten. If you take all the information on face value it could be argued that within a dwindling population of large pelagic sharks, a small number of individuals have been attracted closer to shore by the decaying sheep and cattle carcasses tossed into the water. The waste pumped into the water from the hotels, the fish feeding activity from tourists and the possibility of dive boats feeding sharks in the area would potentially be enough to encourage predatory behaviour in the visiting sharks. Upon encountering vulnerable swimmers at the surface, have the sharks exhibited aggressive, inquisitory behaviour whilst in a heightened state of predatory awareness due to the increased level of stimuli (rotting sheep, increased fish activity, large numbers of people in the water, waste from dive boats and hotels) in the water? It's very, very possible.
These attacks were not feeding attacks, in that the sharks weren't trying to eat people, they were most likely acts of aggression from sharks who's behaviour had been altered by human interference and unfortunately people have been seriously hurt and one killed. The problem is the mainstream media will most likely only cover the tip of the dorsal fin in this story, sharks make easy bad guys and stories of environmental alteration don't sell as well as sharks attacking helpless humans. A small number of sharks have been attracted closer to shore by human negligence, people have been bitten and unfortunately the sharks are going to pay the price. Will they catch the culprits? Probably not, will they catch and kill innocent sharks? They already have...
It is a sad story all around, the most startling part of which for me was the statistic that only 11 Oceanic Whitetip sharks of adult size (2 metres+) have been identified as resident animals, in that they have been documented twice or more, in the area, an area which could once lay claim to be perhaps the best place in the world to encounter Oceanic Whitetip Sharks in the world. This incredible shark was once claimed to be the most common large pelagic fish in the oceans (fish weighing 100lbs or more), it is now critically endangered in many parts of the world, but that won't be a story so widespread in the mainstream press.
As with all shark attacks, we have to look at the bigger picture, a good example being the spate of attacks at Port St Johns in South Africa between 2004 and 2009. The press featured comments from locals and fishermen claiming that the restrictions on shark fishing and the shark diving industry were to blame, what wasn't so widely mentioned was that the beach was used by a local tribe to take part in ritualistic animal sacrifices, in fact, these sacrifices were undertaken on the morning of two of the attacks, both of which were fatal.
All I ask is that you take on board the fact that sharks do not look for people to bite or eat, the rogue shark theory is almost certainly a myth and the biggest victim in shark/human encounters is without doubt the shark. It can be difficult to separate emotions from incidents like these but hopefully more information comes to light, you never know, I may even be right.
I want to thank Avi, Ed, Howard and Patric for passing me some info, in patric's case he should be applauded for taking the time to do what much of the media hasn't, contact a local dive expert and see what they think about everything, as an industry leader, Patric has clarified that the divers in Egypt, almost to a man, want to see tolerance and understanding for the sharks in Red Sea waters and for that we should all thank them.
Seeing as this is a fairly epic blog, I am going to treat you to a couple of videos, made aware to me by my friend, the rather brilliant Mike Neumann, the first may go some way to explain why Oceanic Whitetip Sharks occasionally bite snorkelers and divers, some of the behaviour is pretty scary on the part of the humans involved, the second video is something Mike was pretty reserved with in his comments but I'm afraid I can't exercise such good will, I hate it, I hate this video with a passion and have a strong dislike for the idiots involved in it, it makes me angry and shows a lot of people make diving with sharks all about them and a way to show off to their pals. The dive operator shouldn't have allowed it and the divers themselves are exactly the type of divers that I never, ever want to be on a dive boat with. What both videos do show however, is how tolerant sharks are for human stupidity, all three species in the videos, Oceanic Whitetips, Lemon Sharks and Tiger Sharks could very easily kill every one involved in the videos, the important thing is, they don't, they don't even give them a nip...Bare that in mind next time you read reports in the media about shark incidents...
Finally, feel free to pass this to people you know are talking about the attacks, it might help increase understanding from the shark's point of view, if you are part of the press and want to contact me, please do, if you want to comment and give your thoughts, again please do and finally, to the shark conservationists, I know that innocent sharks have paid the price as well this week but let's also remember, it isn't the fault of the victims, let's not try to play the life of one thing over the life of another, whereas I agree that a human life does not have more value than that of a shark's life, it does not mean the shark has more value than a human, let us try to exercise sympathy and reasoned debate, that is far more helpful than spreading propaganda that may at first seem helpful, when it is actually the total opposite. Sharks are not friendly, they are not like puppy dogs...Sharks are sharks and should be appreciated and cherished for what they are.
Stay safe everyone and thanks for reading!