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Sharks: Misunderstood treasures of our seas On Red Sea sharks and how to behave around them

Several magazines and media outlets in Egypt reported a ‘shark attack’ on an Austrian tourist, Christine Schachinger, in Marsa Alam on Saturday, August 1, 2017. The reports informed the public that a shark bit Schachinger while she was snorkeling, injuring her hip and leg. She received emergency surgery and was flown back to Austria to continue her treatment with no threat to her life. The reports reminded the public of other incidents that have occurred in the Red Sea over the past few years, including those involving two German tourists, who died in 2010 and 2015 after being bitten by sharks.

Yet these reports failed to provide any useful information on the species of shark involved in the incidents, shark behavior, the importance of sharks in the ecosystem, or on human-shark interactions and appropriate behavior in the water with sharks. Several reports also misrepresented information in ways that only fuel panic and reinforce public misconceptions about sharks as man-eating monsters. For example, several articles attached photos of Great White Sharks to their text, a species that is not present in the Red Sea at all. Others attached photos of Whale Sharks, which are not even flesh-eating predators. This article aims to correct these inaccuracies, provide some much needed information, and hopefully prove to readers that there is no need to cancel your trip to Marsa Alam this summer on account of sharks.

When most people think of sharks, the image that comes to mind is that of a large, man-eating monster, with a huge jaw and sharp teeth that could rip a fully-grown human being to pieces in seconds. The sentiments often associated with sharks are those of fear, panic and sometimes even hatred. I blame the spread of this image almost entirely on the media and the movie industry, which has capitalized on our natural animal instinct to fear predators, sensationalizing and amplifying it to an extent which, I believe, puts both people and sharks in more danger when they are in close proximity to each other. Starting with the Jaws saga, all the way to the 2017 Hollywood film 47 Meters Down, cinema has made sharks the stuff of nightmares, especially to people for whom the sea is an alien world that they feel detached from. As a marine biologist, I have been in the water hundreds of times, diving, snorkeling, free diving or watching from a boat, and I can easily say that some of the most beautiful and cherished moments I have spent in the sea are those in which I have seen sharks, and I hope to see many more.

Shark 101

Sharks are some of the oldest and most successful organisms in the history of the animal kingdom. They are close relatives of rays, characterized by their skeletons, which are made of cartilage, as opposed to the bony skeletons of other fishes.

The oldest known sharks existed over 450 million years ago, long before humans or even dinosaurs ever existed. Modern day sharks are very diverse in their appearance, feeding, behavior, reproductive mechanisms and home ranges. Today, there are over 500 species of sharks. They vary in size from as small as 17-20 cm (the deep sea-dwelling Dwarf Lantern Shark), to about 1 – 2 m long (such as the more commonly seen Reef Sharks), 4 – 6 meters seen in larger predators such as Tiger Sharks and Great White Sharks, and approximately 12 m in adult Whale Sharks (which are harmless polka-dotted giants that feed on microscopic plankton floating in the water).

While most sharks are meat-eating (carnivorous) predators, the majority feed on animals that are much smaller than they are, such as small fish, squid, octopuses, stingrays and crustaceans. Very large predatory sharks, such as tigers or great whites, may feed on seals, tunas, jacks, young dolphins or even other sharks. Benthic sharks (such as the Japanese Bullhead Shark) live on the sea floor and feed on small animals that live in or near the sand and rock. Notice that humans are NOT on the menu!

Many species of sharks are large, fast-swimming hunters that are at the top of their food webs, also known as apex predators. Apex predators play a vital role in maintaining balance within an ecosystem — a balance that scientists still do not fully understand. It is not easy to predict exactly what would happen if an apex predator were to be removed from a particular system, but, almost always, the results of such actions are devastating. Research from different parts of the world has shown that the removal of sharks, usually through overfishing, leads to a cascade of events that often results in an overall reduction in biodiversity. This means not only fewer species in a given location, but also fewer fish for fishermen to catch, a reduction in tourism and possibly overall habitat degradation. A decrease in biodiversity often goes hand-in-hand with lowered resilience of an ecosystem, which means that the ecosystem becomes less capable of recovering from major disturbances, such as storms or periods of unusual temperatures. They either take much longer to recover or they don’t recover at all. The effect on income from tourism can also be massive, as much of diving tourism in Egypt (including Red Sea tourism) is specifically focused on sharks. People pay millions of dollars annually and travel across the world just to be in the water with sharks.

This is why sharks are extremely important ecologically, economically and for the food security of many coastal and island communities. This growing realization is behind worldwide efforts to stop the overfishing of sharks and the practice of “shark finning,” where sharks are caught and their fins cut off to be sold commercially. Hundreds and thousands of sharks are killed daily for their fins, which are used to make shark fin soup, among other uses, mainly in China and south-east Asia. Many shark species are endangered, threatened or vulnerable to extinction due to such activities.

Red Sea sharks

Recent research tells us there are currently 29 species of sharks that have been found in the Red Sea. This is actually a small number compared to other parts of the world. More importantly, research shows that Red Sea shark populations are in serious trouble. Particularly on the Saudi Arabian side, overfishing has decimated shark populations to a degree that may be quite difficult to bounce back from. In parts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, baby shark meat is falsely believed to have aphrodisiac qualities. Despite the fact that shark fishing is illegal along most of the Red Sea coast, including Egypt, the laws are poorly enforced. Sharks are doing better in Egypt and Sudan than they are in Saudi Arabia, but violations still occur. Shark meat fillets are sometimes sold as the meat of other fish to avoid fines, and fishermen sometimes catch sharks by mistake and do not release them. Recreational fishing with spear-guns is also illegal in Egypt, and yet people occasionally defy this law and shoot sharks and endangered fish for sport.

If you SCUBA dive or snorkel regularly, you might be lucky enough to see one of the small Red Sea sharks. The most commonly seen species by divers and snorkelers are Whitetip Reef Sharks (not to be confused with the Oceanic Whitetip Shark), Blacktip Reef Sharks and Grey Reef Sharks, all of which are between 1 and 2 meters long. They are quite shy and usually swim away quite fast when they see people. Silky Sharks are somewhat rarer. They might try to steal your catch from you if you are fishing near them, but that’s about it. If you are very lucky, you might see one of the more rare sharks. Some of the most celebrated sightings are those of Whale Sharks (pictured below). As mentioned earlier, Whale Sharks can be huge. An adult Whale Shark can be 10-12 meters long and weigh over 40 tons. These sharks come to the surface, open their mouths, and sweep through to filter tiny organisms out of the water. They are called “whale” sharks because of the way they feed and because of their size. The only danger with whale sharks is that if you swim too close and are not careful, you might get hit accidentally by a fin. They are one of the most beloved gentle giants of the sea and the largest fish on the planet. Other Red Sea sharks include the Pelagic Thresher, the Scalloped Hammerhead, the Tawny Nurse Shark, among many others.

A juvenile Whale Shark being photographed in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea - Courtesy: Fernando Cagua

But what about sharks that were involved in the incidents reported in Egypt over the past few years? This was the Oceanic Whitetip Shark (scientific name: Charcharinus longimanus). This shark is usually recognized by its long, white-tipped and rounded fins (see picture below) and is usually accompanied by black-and-white striped pilot fish, which eat the remains of the shark’s meals. The Oceanic Whitetip is usually between 2 and 3 meters long, but the largest recorded individual reached 4 meters. It is mostly slow moving and prefers to live in warm, deep waters, feeding on fish and cephalopods, only occasionally coming close to shore. Just like all other sharks, Oceanic Whitetips are not interested in humans as a source of food. Thousands of tourists have specifically come to Egypt in order to see this shark in the water, and they have not been bitten. Their sightings are recorded in the Red Sea Sharks project database. So, why did Christine Schachinger and other people get bitten? Let’s have a look at what we know about human-shark interactions.

An Oceanic Whitetip Shark, recognized by its long, white-tipped, rounded fins and striped pilot fish. Picture taken by Johan Lantz in Egypt - Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Human-shark interactions

One of the reports of the recent incident in Marsa Alam claimed that the group of snorkelers encountered the shark on their way back to shore, and that one of the swimmers panicked and kicked the shark immediately before it turned and bit Schachinger. If this account is true, then this would be an example of a provoked, defensive bite. The bite could have been avoided if the snorkelers had been taught or briefed on how to behave in the presence of a shark. They could have simply stuck closer together, snapped pictures, quietly watched this beautiful creature swim past and then gone home with an amazing story to tell their friends, or uploaded their photos to the Red Sea Sharks project website. But unfortunately, this is not what happened.

Decades of observing shark behavior and studying human-shark interactions show that sharks are mostly disinterested in people. For every shark that bites a person, there are thousands of other sharks that simply swim by showing no interest. This is true even of Great White Sharks. Many shark bites are the direct result of irresponsible human behavior, such as hand-feeding sharks (which teaches some sharks to expect food out of people’s hands, as happened in Sharm el-Sheikh recently, touching or poking sharks (either to annoy them, or out of unnecessary panic), or invasion of the animal’s space. They are mostly either accidents or acts of defense. Shark bites can also be motivated by curiosity or mistaken identity. Some sharks may be intrigued by seeing a strange creature in their waters or think it might be prey, and they may want to check it out by coming closer, taking a look, or, if you’re unlucky, grabbing with their teeth. In most cases, if a shark does bite out of curiosity, it loses interest as soon as it realizes it has not found a good food source. This is why most shark bites are actually non-fatal, and the few fatalities that do occur are mostly due to blood loss from injury.

Our improved understanding of shark behavior has led to scientists abandoning the term “shark attack” altogether, replacing it with “human-shark interactions,” or “shark bites.” It is important to realize that shark bites are extremely rare. You are 75 times more likely to be struck by lightning and 33 times more likely to be bitten by a dog than you are to be killed by a shark. But before you go swimming, you still need to know how to behave if you see a shark.

How to behave in the presence of a shark

First, in order to minimize the risk of a negative interaction:

  • It is generally a good idea to avoid swimming in very deep water far from any reefs or from the shore. You should stick to reefs and avoid blue water dives in shark territory.
  • Sharks often follow or swim underneath pods of dolphins and other marine mammals, waiting to prey on weak members of the group. Avoid swimming with such pods in deep open water far from shore or reefs.
  • Never feed sharks — from your hands or from boats. Do not dive with people who do so. Report any such activities to the relevant authorities.

If you are already in the water and you see an Oceanic Whitetip or another big shark:

  • Stay calm. This is the single most important tip. If you panic, you will forget all the other tips.
  • Assess the shark. Is it bigger than you? Is it swimming fast? Does it seem agitated or calm? Does it seem interested in you at all?
  • Keep an eye on the shark and get closer to your buddy and to the reef wall/sand. If there doesn’t seem to be any threat, just enjoy the moment (and don’t tell me about it, because I will be very jealous).
  • If the shark seems agitated (e.g. swimming fast, zigzagging, circling you, coming closer and then zooming away, etc.) or, for any other reason, you simply do not feel comfortable with the situation, stay close to the reef or to the sea floor and quickly but calmly exit the water.

These tips should cover the vast majority of shark encounters most people are likely to have. You can read more on this here. However, if you do find yourself in a situation where an agitated shark is behaving aggressively towards you and you can’t exit the water quickly enough:

  • When a shark is in “hunting mode,” it hunches its back, points its side fins downward and swims quickly, zigzagging and zooming around. If you witness this behavior and you are unable to exit the water quickly enough, you should actually try swimming towards the shark, while maintaining eye contact. This is very unlike typical prey behavior, and so most sharks won’t like that and will swim away.
  • Your last resort if you actually get bitten would be to defend yourself by punching or kicking at the shark’s nose or clawing at its eyes and gills, then exiting the water as soon as the shark retreats.

Responses to negative or tragic human-shark interactions

Despite the rarity of shark bites, sharks remain animals that we love to fear. It is natural to fear predators that are larger, stronger and faster than we are, especially when the media overly sensationalizes our relationship to them. But the problem is that we forget to respect them. The ocean is not our territory. We are ill adapted for life in the ocean, but have found ways to exploit and enjoy the seas with our tools and skills. We have to respect that when we venture into the sea for any purpose, we are entering the home of other animals, including sharks — animals that play important roles in maintaining a balance that we ourselves depend on for survival.

For these reasons, responding to shark bites (fatal or non-fatal) by wishing all sharks dead, spreading panic or actually hunting down and killing sharks is irresponsible and unwise. Instead, we should think like Achmat Hassiem, a South African shark attack survivor and adorned Paralympian. He became a shark conservationist after his right leg was bitten off by a Great White Shark.

Sharks are misunderstood, misrepresented and endangered by human activities. Globally, for every human killed by a shark bite, humans have killed approximately 2 million sharks. I suggest that, if you see an Oceanic Whitetip Shark next time you’re in the Red Sea, instead of panicking, just look at it. It’s an amazing animal. Snap a picture, join the thousands of people who have seen this shark before you and have not been bitten, and upload your pictures to the Red Sea Sharks project website.

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Maha T. Khalil