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A red flag serving as a warning of shark sightings flutters over tourists enjoying a day on the beach at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
A red flag serving as a warning of shark sightings flutters over tourists enjoying a day on the beach at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

Sharks: the danger that lurks beneath us

Shark attacks in the Red Sea have left one swimmer dead and four injured. Could it happen here in the UAE?

Egypt's Red Sea beaches have been closed. An elderly woman is dead and four others are badly injured. Not since the film Jaws has the shark created such panic. But how worried should we be in the UAE, and what really swims in our own waters? Jonathan Gornall looks for answers

This weekend, as swimmers flock to the beaches of the UAE in large numbers for the first time since a series of five shark attacks last week in the Red Sea ended with the death of a German tourist, there will surely be few who enter the water without giving at least a moment's thought to what might lie beneath.

In fact, the closest encounter most UAE residents will ever have with a shark will be from behind the safety of the acrylic "glass" at the aquarium in Dubai Mall, and even there the 11 species of shark on display do not include Carcharhinus longimanus, the oceanic whitetip, blamed for the recent attacks off the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The reputation of the oceanic predator was cast in July 1945, when it was blamed for a feeding frenzy in the Philippine Sea among the 900 survivors of the torpedoed USS Indianapolis, of whom barely 300 survived.

Jacques Cousteau, the famous sea explorer, once labelled it "the most dangerous of all sharks", and some sources say it is responsible for more fatal attacks than all other types of shark combined, including the fabled great white of Jaws fame.

The good news is that, to date, although the habitually pelagic oceanic might conceivably frequent the deeper waters off Iran, none has been reported in the shallow waters of the western Gulf.

Besides, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), compiled by the Florida Program for Shark Research, when it comes to these apex predators the waters of the Gulf in general are a great deal safer than those of the Red Sea.

Before the latest round of attacks there had been seven reported incidents in the Red Sea in the past decade, all off the coast of Egypt and all involving holidaymakers.

Three took place in 2004, one off Dahab and two off Sharm el-Sheikh, in one of which an Egyptian snorkeller bled to death just off the shore in Coral Bay. Last June saw a spate of three attacks, this time at St John's Reef, a favourite spot for Red Sea divers, in which an oceanic whitetip was blamed for the death of a Frenchwoman attacked while snorkelling.

Before this week the most recent attack had been in April: a British tourist was bitten on the ankle as he swam 12 metres from shore and escaped only when he was hauled onboard a passing boat.

The ISAF has little evidence of shark attacks in the Arabian Gulf, where according to a 19th-century observer even the pearl divers feared an altogether different predator - the sawfish, now listed as critically endangered.

"Accidents do not very frequently occur from sharks, but the sawfish ... is much dreaded," wrote a British naval officer who spent time with pearl divers in 1834. "Instances were related to me where the divers had been completely cut in two by these monsters."

In January this year a surfer injured off Umm Suqeim beach in Dubai was thought to have been bitten by a shark, but "in the history of the UAE, we have records of only one other attack, in 1977, off Jebel Ali", said Bethan Gillett of the ISAF. It, too, was not fatal.

But quite which sharks might be swimming around off the shores of the UAE remains something of a mystery - and a mystery a Lebanese-Canadian marine scientist is in the throes of solving.

"There is basically no information on sharks in the Arabian Gulf," says Rima Jabado, who has made the animals the subject of the PhD for which she is studying at UAE University in Al Ain. In October, with the help of an army of 70 volunteers, she began a painstaking year-long survey of the shark catches in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah.

Her aim is to compile the first comprehensive species list for the Gulf, and she has already confirmed the existence of no fewer than 22 types of shark - to the surprise of the fishermen, many of whom believed there were only 10 or 12 varieties in the Gulf.

"There are a lot of species we know about that we've confirmed so far, but potentially there could be species we don't think exist in the Gulf," she says. DNA samples will help to differentiate between morphologically similar sharks. "There might even be species that are new to science. But that could just be my wishful thinking."

Ignorance of the extent of the Gulf's shark population is widespread. The volunteers, she says, "have been fantastic, they are all very helpful and interested in what's going on, [but] when they first come to the markets they are shocked by the quantities that are there."

Many of the smaller sharks - 90 per cent of those landed are less than a metre long - are caught with hand lines, while larger ones tend to come ashore as "by-catch", snared in nets that are legal in the UAE between October and May each year.

The star surprise so far has been Sphyrna mokarran, the largest of the hammerhead sharks, whose presence in the Gulf has long been the subject of speculation: "They are definitely here; whether they are migrating or not is something I won't be able to tell until I've got my year-long data, and can compare seasonalities."

So far, however, there has been no evidence of oceanic whitetips, which tend to stick to deep water. "The fishermen have told me they don't see oceanics on this side, but off the coast of Fujairah. Even there it doesn't mean they are right off the coast; they go out 200 nautical miles [370km] to fish in deep waters."

Although no mako sharks have turned up in her survey, Jabado believes that, though uncommon, they might be here, and have been mistaken for the great whites some fishermen claim to have seen in the Gulf. "I've shown them pictures and they've identified it. And I've seen mako jaws in Fujairah."

Jabado, a keen diver, travelled to the Red Sea this year specifically to see oceanic whitetips, but didn't encounter any. What's happened in Egypt, she says, "is sad, both for the people and the image of the shark".

"But when you are looking at shark attacks it is really important to put it into perspective. For instance, what about all the people who die from bee stings every year? No one talks about that. Are you going to freak out and say, 'I'm never going to walk outside again because a bee might sting me and I might die'?"

One man who has seen the oceanic whitetip up close is Jonathan Ali Khan, a Dubai-based underwater cameraman whose Wild Planet Productions is working on Sharkquest Arabia, two documentary films about the region's sharks and the effect of overfishing.

His encounter, which took place nine months ago at Daedalus Reef in the middle of the Red Sea, was a rare one, and Khan's first. Worldwide, numbers of oceanic whitetips are in decline; at November's meeting in Doha of members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species the oceanic was proposed for protection from fishing for its fins, but lost out to the porbeagle shark.

"Divers know to be cautious around them," he says. "They are very curious animals and it came in and made a few passes. There was an element of fear and respect, awe and elation that comes from looking the beast in the eye, of realising that this animal is looking at you probably with the same concerns with which you are looking at it.

"Well, we don't have the teeth but we have every other means of destroying their existence."

The coverage of the attacks in the Red Sea, "one of the most dramatic and interesting marine wilderness areas of Arabia", he says, is "certainly not doing sharks any favours, but by the same token it highlights the fact that people are so unprepared, uninformed and lacking in the main resource that we need to deal with our natural world, and that's information".

"It never ceases to amaze me that people react with surprise to the fact that sharks have sharp teeth and can attack people. Not to appear flippant, but when you go into the jungle, don't expect to find a poodle."

Sharks, he says, have been "stereotyped as the main villain in our psyche when it comes to the monsters that inhabit our darkest dreams, but we have to get beyond that and recognise that this is purely a wild animal doing what it normally does: look for food."

Nevertheless, last week's attacks were unusual. There is no shortage of theories for what caused them, but they all have one thing in common - a trigger of human behaviour. Some blame tour guides who throw offal or chickens into the sea to attract sharks; others say over-fishing of the Red Sea has driven oceanic whitetips closer to shore in search of food. Another theory is that dead sheep thrown overboard from a ship transporting live animals from Australia may have attracted large numbers of sharks.

Whatever the cause, it was not until after the first four attacks last week that the Egyptian authorities, fearful of the effect on a tourist industry worth more than US$11 billion (Dh40bn) a year, reluctantly closed the beaches and ordered a shark hunt. A mako and an oceanic whitetip, were quickly killed and the beaches declared safe.

But the following day, in an episode grimly reminiscent of the 1975 Spielberg film Jaws, an elderly German tourist staying at the Hyatt Regency Hotel was attacked and killed as she stood chest-deep in the sea.

Khan found the hunting of the sharks "almost an insult to everybody who has dedicated their lives to understanding wildlife to think that the world has to become homogenised in such a way that it is just a playground for people to go and do what they want to do without regard for the consequences of interaction with the wilderness".

As such, the incidents serve as a metaphor for man's impact on the environment. Although Khan doubts the experts from the US will be able to establish what provoked the attacks, he hopes a study will be made of environmental conditions that may have served as a trigger for the animals' uncharacteristic behaviour - and not just of the overfishing that may be driving sharks inshore, but what they find when they get there.

"I'm talking about all these hotel developments, the much higher volumes of effluence and waste in the water now, that can alter the chemical composition and that in some species could maybe trigger a response."

And, whether oceanic whitetips exist in the Gulf or not, in the events of the past week there may be an ominous lesson for the UAE, he says.

When work began on the manmade islands off Dubai, "the developers took great pride in announcing that they were creating artificial reef habitats, in an otherwise featureless area, that are going to draw in marine life.

"In my view they have opened themselves up to the possibility that with these artificial reefs will also come the predators. Without wishing to sensationalise that prospect, there have been reports of tiger sharks and other species coming close to the island developments."

jgornall@thenational.ae

 

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