The shark believed by the Egyptian environment ministry to have attacked tourists in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Photograph: EPANo one said it was safe to go back in the water – and no one, absolutely no one, was taking any chances.
The sparkling Red Sea off Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt, home to more than 1,000 species of exotic fish, spectacular corals and a worldwide magnet for diving enthusiasts, lay undisturbed today in the aftermath of this week’s shark attacks.
Tourists, usually clambering into wetsuits and queuing for snorkelling equipment from early morning, anxiously patrolled the water’s edge or sipped consolatory cocktails under the thatched umbrellas lining the beach.
A handful had packed their bags and left. Others said they would never return to Sharm el-Sheikh after witnessing the gory attacks which left four people badly injured.
Bloodstains were still visible on the paved path backing Tiran beach where two of the attacks took place on Wednesday. Few here, at least, were reassured by the capture and killing of two sharks by marine authorities the following day.
Nina Dydzinski, 46, from Wigan, was lying on the beach when the tranquillity of her holiday was pierced by shouts in Russian of “Shark! Shark!”.
“I had just come in from the water where I’d been snorkelling close to the beach,” she said. “I heard a man shouting. Everyone panicked,” she said.
Her husband, Jarostaw, 49, was in the water when the shark struck. People scrambled for safety, he said. “Everyone was trying to climb on the jetty.”
Mohamed Rashad, a barman at the nearby al-Bahr beach restaurant, saw one man running from the sea with blood streaming from gashes in his leg. “The sea went red,” he said.
Minutes later, the shark attacked again. The victim was plucked from the water by rescuers from a local diving centre. “Four men carried the man,” said Nina Dydzinski. “The water was full of blood. One hand was hanging by a pinch of skin.” Rashad said the man’s foot “was gone”. The beach quickly emptied, according to the barman. “All the people ran away back to the hotel, no one wanted to stay on the beach. Now it’s very quiet. People are scared to come to the beach. They are just coming to the bar to have a drink. They don’t even want to stay on the sunbeds.”
Wednesday’s attack was the second in two days. In total three Russians and a Ukrainian were bitten by the shark and transferred to hospital in Cairo with injuries to their limbs and backs.
One victim was said to have lost a foot and another an arm.
The authorities acted speedily, closing Sharm el-Sheikh’s beaches and sending out conservation teams to track and capture the shark, identified as an oceanic whitetip. Yesterday, Egypt’s environment ministry said two sharks had been caught and were being dissected to examine the contents of their stomachs. One, it said, was similar to a shark photographed by a diver minutes before the first attack.
Tourists staying in hotels near the scene of the second attack were unimpressed. “I saw the man screaming, with blood all around him,” said Gromova Galina, 53, a Russian from Nizhny Novgorod, on her first holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh. “I won’t go back in the water, I can’t. It’s very dangerous. I am very, very scared. There is nothing to save us.”
But further along the coastline, hotel guests were more phlegmatic. In the Hilton Sharks Bay resort, a London woman who declined to give her name was trying to find out whether Gatwick had reopened for her return flight. “To be honest I’m more bothered about the snow than the shark,” she said. “I’d definitely go back in [the water] if they say they’ve caught it. When your time’s up, your time’s up. You have to take your chances, don’t you?”
Denise Rhodes, 54, was staying at the five-star Coral Bay Domina for a fortnight in the sun. “It doesn’t bother me,” she said, adding that she would be “in the water tomorrow” if the beaches reopen. “I want to use my snorkel. It might sound daft, but if things are going to happen, they’ll happen. You don’t let it spoil your holiday, do you?”
Shark attacks around Sharm el-Sheikh are unusual, according to Marcus Maurer, manager of the Extra Dive Centre, whose staff rescued one of the victims.
But tourists must share the blame for the attacks, he said.
“These are open water sharks. The biggest problem is people feeding the fish. The fish are an attraction, people like to see them. But if people throw food in the water, the fish come inside the reef and maybe the sharks follow the fish. They are changing the behaviour of the animals.”
Along the beach, notices in several languages say: “All unused food and packaging must be put in the garbage container. Food may not be eaten in the sea or within a 4ft perimeter around the sea.”
Divers, said Maurer, were taught how to react to the presence of a shark. “They know to stay calm, don’t kick or swim fast, don’t beat the shark.
“But snorkellers and swimmers have no experience or training – they panic. Then the shark starts to hunt.” He had never had a problem with sharks in more than 3,000 dives over 13 years. “People have to learn it’s not our territory, it’s the territory of the animals. If we go there, we have to respect the marine life.”
Ezat Ezat, 39, of the Wave diving centre, claimed it was the first shark attack around Sharm el-Sheikh for 15 years, although other locals said there had been an attack two years ago.
This week’s events would not put off the resort’s annual tally of 3 million tourists, said Ezat, particularly those that come specifically to dive amid the sharks that frequent the Red Sea. “People want to see sharks, they get angry if there are none around. It’s good for us to go and see the sharks, but not so good when the sharks come to see us.”
Back on the beach, Dydzinski was looking forward to getting back to Wigan. “I will never come back to Sharm, and I will never snorkel again,” she said. “It’s been a very big stress. I’m very glad to be going home. There might be a lot of snow in Wigan – but at least there are no sharks.”
Slow-swimming, solitary shark
The oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) is found around the world in deep, open water that has a temperature greater than 18C. Once an abundant species, its numbers dropped by about 70% from 1990 to 2000 as it fell victim to gillnets and longlines in the world’s ever-increasing number of fisheries. The whitetip is considered “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list of endangered species and its fins, meat, skin and oil are traded commercially.
An olive-brown adult can reach 4m in length and is identifiable by its rounded pectoral fin tipped in white. It is a slow-swimming, solitary fish and spends most of its time in the upper layers of the ocean. But it is known to get aggressive when humans are around – divers are warned to be cautious of the animal.
The shark is thought to have been responsible for many attacks on shipwreck victims during the second world war. These included survivors of the Nova Scotia, a ship carrying around 1,000 which was sunk near South Africa, and also the USS Indianapolis. Hundreds of deaths in these situations were attributed to the oceanic whitetip.
The shark also tends to dominate its ocean-dwelling companions, getting to the centre of feeding frenzies in the ocean around, for example, whale carcasses. It eats a wide variety of foods, from stingrays, sea turtles, birds, crustaceans and carrion to rubbish dumped from ships. It will also eat bony fish such as barracuda, marlin, tuna, and mackerel. Some of its feeding methods include biting into groups of fish and swimming through schools of tuna with an open mouth.
Harriet Sherwood in Sharm el-Sheikh
guardian.co.uk, Friday 3 December 2010 16.39 GMT