The Brothers Islands in the Red Sea have been closed to divers ‘for the rest of the year’ following a series of injuries to divers resulting from interactions with oceanic whitetip sharks.
There have been a total of four biting incidents recorded – one in June and three in November. Two resulted in minor lacerations to the diver’s hip or thigh area and one resulted in damage to the diver’s BCD, but no injury to the diver.
The most serious incident was recorded at the beginning of November. Video footage of the interaction (which has since been taken down by the videographer) shows a diver appearing to panic – or at least waving their arms and kicking in an attempt to fend off the shark – after it made a series of close approaches to the diver. The shark then proceeds to bite into the lower leg of a second diver in close proximity, who suffered ‘severe tissue loss’ to his calf muscle. No feeding behaviour is shown in the footage, nor any of the other reported incidents.
Lurid tales of ‘shark attacks’ circulated on the Internet as a result – with some falsely claiming the diver lost his entire leg. However, a report posted on the Red Sea Sharks Facebook page from dive centre owner Ahmed Mamdouh states that ‘the diver … clearly was afraid and panicking, making all kinds of mistakes, kicking with legs and hands, simulating prey attitude that resulted in increasing the shark’s interests.’ After recounting the facts of the incident, Mamdouh goes on to state that: ‘Following safe diving practices during shark diving could have avoided this incident.’
It must be stressed that although there have been four recorded bites from oceanic whitetips in recent months, such interactions are incredibly rare, given that thousands of divers visit the Brothers every month. The 2010 Sharm-El-Sheikh ‘attacks’ by an oceanic whitetip which resulted in serious injury to two women and the tragic fatality of a third have been repeatedly (if not accurately) reported, but still remain very isolated incidents given the millions of tourists that visit the Red Sea each year.
The decision to close the Brothers has been applauded by those that are familiar with the area. Elke Bojanowski, biologist and founder of the Red Sea Sharks Trust wrote in a statement that: ‘the expectation is, that [the closure] will encourage the oceanic whitetips to follow their normal movement patterns at this time of year and return to their natural habitat: the open ocean away from islands, reefs – and divers.’
In an e-mail conversation with DIVE, Elke – who identifies individual sharks as part of her research – said that in the case of the series of bites at the Brothers, ‘it is not the same shark involved in all four bites/incidents, so there is no ‘rogue’ shark swimming around out there biting people.’ As to the reasons why these incidents have occurred, there is no definitive answer, but there are possible reasons.
‘The constant presence of liveaboards over the last years accompanied by their sounds and smells, intentional and unintentional feeding of sharks, the illegal fishing activities, and changes in the way that dives are being conducted out there, is (at least to a huge degree) to blame for the current situation,’ writes Elke. ‘So besides removing the stimuli rewarding oceanics to hang around dive sites for extended periods of time, it will give the industry the chance to review practices, ensure the proper training of everybody involved, and make sure violators of the agreed practices are severely punished in the future.’
To put that into context, it is common practice for liveaboards to dump organic waste far out to sea and away from the dive sites, however, it’s possible that oceanic whitetips might follow boats to the dive sites as a result – they were once nicknamed ‘sea dogs’ for that reason. It’s also highly likely – deliberately or accidentally – that some organic waste finds its way into the sea while dive boats are moored at the Brothers. Fishing is illegal in the National Parks but is still known to happen and opportunistic predators such as the oceanic whitetip will take advantage of a hooked fish as an easy target. Judging by the number of sharks sighted trailing hooks and lines, this is a regular occurrence and constitutes a form of unintentional shark-feeding behaviour.
While the practice of dive guides baiting sharks was once fairly common, it is much less frequent these days, but it is still happening. At the same time as reports about the more severe injury at the Brothers surfaced, photographs of a liveaboard moored at Daedalus reef showed the crew baiting an oceanic whitetip. The liveaboard has since had its licence revoked, and although Daedalus is some distance from the Brothers, it must be remembered that oceanic whitetips are aptly named – they are a pelagic species, not confined to a single territory, and the liveaboard – and others that might be engaged in the same illegal practice – would also have had the Brothers on its itinerary.
Furthermore, although it’s not a new phenomenon, divers are increasingly spending more time in the blue and under the boats waiting for the sharks to appear, rather than diving the reef.
There are no plans for a shark cull, which is good news for a species that – while commonly sighted around the Brothers – is nevertheless classed worldwide as vulnerable to extinction. Removing the factors that cause the sharks to congregate around dive boats and potentially cause some of the more aggressive behaviour witnessed recently is an excellent reflection on the Egyptian authorities. The situation at the Brothers will be monitored over the next few weeks and ‘informed decisions about how to proceed after that,’ will be forthcoming
‘I understand that this might be disappointing for those who were hoping to dive the Brothers over the next few weeks,’ said Elke, ‘but in the light of everything that happened, it was the only decision to prevent any escalation or potentially more serious incidents.’
Despite frequent sightings, little is known about the behaviour of oceanic whitetip sharks. You can play your part in helping with the conservation of these magnificent animals by submitting or sharing your photographs and videos with Elke Bojanowski at the Red Sea Shark Trust, where you can also make a donation or adopt your own shark. Identification of the sharks is through the unique white markings on their dorsal and pectoral fins, and it helps to add as much information as you can, such as the date, time and location of the sighting, water temperature, depth, and any behavioural patterns the shark exhibits. You can submit your sightings via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or through their Facebook page. Sightings of other species such as whale sharks and manta rays are also welcome.