x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Deep fears don't wash

Feature Despite the recent visit of an enormous shark to the capital's shores, with no recorded UAE fatal attacks, bathers need not worry about the ocean's most feared fish.

Cath Riley / Debut Art
Cath Riley / Debut Art

With the recent visit of an enormous shark to the capital's shores, Jerry Langton stands up for the often misunderstood predator and assures bathers that, with no recorded deaths from shark attacks in the UAE, they need not worry about the ocean's most feared fish. Yann Lavoie couldn't believe his eyes. In 1997, the Abu Dhabi-based respiratory therapist was snorkelling in shallow water just off Snoopy Island as he had many times before, when he saw two sharks. "I was totally awed at first," he says. "I could not believe I was swimming with sharks, and big ones, by my standards at least, so all I could think of was to follow them, take pictures and film them."

But things changed. "Everything was fine in my mind while I could see both of them, but then at some point I noticed I could only see one of them and started wondering where the other one might be," he says. "That was when my mind involuntarily switched to alert mode and I started wondering: what if the other one comes from behind and grabs a bite of me or something?" He quickly - "like crazy" - got out of the water; he says he had "never felt like prey before". He read later that the sharks - blacktip - were "friendly," but at the time he didn't want to take any chances.

Yes, there are sharks in the waters around the UAE, as onlookers at the Emirates Palace hotel realised two weeks ago when a whale shark about 7m long swam around in the shallow waters at a marina being built at the hotel. But the sharks that swim in the ocean here shouldn't worry you. According to Andrew Piercy, a research biologist at the University of Florida who is one of the people who compiles and maintains the authoritative International Shark Attack File, there has only been one shark attack in the waters around the UAE.

And it was more annoying than disastrous. In 1977, Simon Coulter was enjoying a dip just off Dubai when the mighty beast struck. "Mr Coulter was snorkelling when a shark bit one of his flippers," Piercy says. "He was not injured in the incident." But he did have to buy a new flipper. Of course, the vast majority of people who have swum, snorkelled, dived and surfed in the region over the years have not known Coulter's terror. Or irritation. But a few have had experiences like Lavoie's.

That's because, although there are sharks in the area, they aren't really dangerous. There are about 465 species of sharks worldwide, ranging from tiny lantern sharks to the big-as-a-bus whale shark, but only a dozen or so pose any risk to humans. Of these, three - the great white shark, the bull shark and the tiger shark - account for the overwhelming number of attacks and virtually all the deaths. Luckily, the great white and the bull shark do not swim near our shores.

Evidence, however, suggests the tiger shark does. They have been spotted every so often off the coast of Oman, and one - a juvenile about 80cm long - was once caught near Jebel Ali. A typical case of shark hysteria gripped Dubai some years later in 2004 when there were rumours a tiger shark had been caught near the Royal Mirage. But the 170cm fish turned out to be a copper shark (also known as a bronze whaler), a far less aggressive shark that has never killed a human and is very rare in the area.

At the time, Professor Joe Valencic, a shark expert from the American Scripps Institute of Oceanography who is familiar with the area, said: "The small male shark which was caught did not pose a threat to bathers, but rather offered an opportunity to observe a magnificent fish, rarely seen, first hand." That's the basic story with the sharks in UAE waters. They really aren't aggressive or big enough to pose a threat to people if you leave them alone.

The prevailing opinion among scientists is that almost all unprovoked attacks are the result of sharks mistaking humans for their usual prey. Because of our size, shape and body type, the only sea creatures that even the least alert shark would mistake us for are (remember mammals and fish smell very different, even underwater) seals or sea lions. With a grand total of zero, it's hard to say the UAE's seal and sea lion population is attracting sharks.

Instead, the sharks that exist here generally eat fish. Small fish. Since they usually eat their prey whole and have very small mouths, the idea of one trying to eat a human is sort of like trying to fit a whole watermelon in your mouth. But that doesn't mean that the sharks in UAE waters won't bite. Rare is the wild animal that won't defend itself if it feels its life is in danger, but since sharks are excellent swimmers (and we aren't), they almost always flee before it comes to that. "To be perfectly honest, these particular sharks are nothing more than slightly curious about divers - the sound of the scuba equipment when breathing is quite loud for them and they aren't very interested in getting too close," says Carla Jeffrey, a diving instructor with Khorfakkan-based Divers Down.

"They are not aggressive animals. The only time they may become slightly aggressive is if they feel threatened." If you're a swimmer, and you'd like to avoid sharks, it's pretty easy. Swim only at sandy beaches (which most sharks don't like) and in the clearest water you can. As sharks prefer murkier water where their senses give them an advantage over their prey, they are less likely to be in the vicinity, and if they are, the clearer water will allow you to spot them more easily. Try to stay with a group, or at least with other swimmers. Sharks are afraid of one person, so more people are even more frightening.

There are other precautions that are just common sense. Don't swim with an open wound, don't swim around people who are fishing, especially spear-fishing, and avoid any rubbish in the water. A good rule of thumb is that if you see a lot of birds diving after something in the water, stay away - they like to eat much the same things that sharks do. Things are different for divers. While there is little reason for sharks to frequent beaches, they are drawn to the reefs for the same reason you are - the amazing amount of fish and other life. The likelihood of running into sharks increases exponentially. While their presence may be scary, veteran divers tell me they pose no real danger. "If a shark were to become aggressive, the easiest way to deal with it is to take your Alternate Air Source - otherwise known as Octopus - and simply press the purge button while pointing the mouthpiece towards the shark," says Jeffrey. "This produces a forceful stream of bubbles that would distract and disorient the shark and persuade it not to come any closer."

Statistically, she's right about the UAE's sharks posing little danger. Over the years, tens of millions of people have enjoyed the UAE's waters. And the only damage sharks have caused was a chunk out of a plastic flipper 32 years ago. So go ahead, go back into the water. Yes, you are sharing it with sharks, but the chances of having any trouble with them is exceedingly small. In fact, snow is more likely to fall in the UAE - after all, that's happened twice.

At least 10 species of shark have been recorded in UAE waters, mostly away from beaches and other human activity, and seven are seen more frequently than the others. Three of them - the blacktip reef shark, the blacktip shark and the black-tipped shark - have similar names, but they are very different fish. Note: of the 672 attacks recorded worldwide in the past century, just one has been in the waters around the UAE

Maximum size: 280cm Diet: Schooling fish, rays, squid Relative danger: Low (16 attacks/0 fatalities worldwide) Comment: Gets its name from its habit of jumping out of the water and spinning three or four times in the air while hunting.

Maximum size: 250cm Diet: Schooling fish, smaller sharks, squid, crustaceans Relative danger: Low (seven attacks/0 fatalities worldwide) Comment: Curious, grey reef sharks are more likely than other sharks to approach divers; interestingly, they are more aggressive when alone than in groups.

Maximum size: 220cm Diet: Fish (including other sharks), rays, squid, shrimp Relative danger: Despite its size, very low (five attacks/0 fatalities worldwide) Comment: Avoids beaches and surf, preferring bays and the mouths of rivers.

Maximum size: 200cm Diet: Fish, rays, squid, crustaceans, molluscs Relative danger: Low (11 attacks/0 fatalities worldwide) Comment: Fond of shallow water up to 27C; the most likely to come into contact with swimmers.

Maximum size: 150cm Diet: Almost entirely fish Relative danger: Medium (28 attacks/0 fatalities worldwide) Comment: Though small, generally timid and rarely found on or near beaches, blacktips are responsible for many attacks on surfers and spearfishermen, mainly in the United States - most end in a small cut, but things can get serious when blacktips are feeding; underwater feeding of blacktips is a popular tourist diversion at Caribbean resorts.

Maximum size: 120cm Diet: Fish, squid, crustaceans Relative danger: Considered harmless (0 attacks/0 fatalities worldwide) Comment: One of the area's most common sharks, it is very shy around people.

Maximum size: 100cm Diet: Fish, sea horses, prawns, squid Relative danger: Considered harmless (0 attacks/0 fatalities worldwide) Comment: Also called the blackspot shark.