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January 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Are Red Sea Sharks Biting More Often?

from the January, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If a shark decides to bite you, there's little you can do. The question is, why are Red Sea sharks biting more divers these days?

Oceanic white-tip sharks, which swim in tropical and warm temperate seas, are often encountered at Red Sea dive sites, such as the Brother Islands near the Egyptian coast, but recently, they've started to bite divers more than they had in the past. Dan White, a British diver, posted a video online that he shot of a shark biting a diver in that area in early November. He was filming an oceanic white-tip circling his boat while he was doing a deco stop. It looked relaxed and was swimming about casually. But then about 20 divers from other boats surrounded it, and eventually it got spooked. The shark then made an antagonistic display, with its pectoral fins down and back arched, but the divers didn't seem to notice the change in its demeanor.

Then the shark became interested in one particular diver wearing a shortie, probably attracted by the action of his bare white legs as he swam. The diver fended it off three times. A diver from a different boat and wearing side-mounted tanks saw what was happening, but unaware of the danger, took his eyes off the shark. In an instant, the shark bit one of his calf muscles cleanly off. All divers then scrambled from the water. The victim was recovered to his own liveaboard (luckily an ex-Royal Marine medic who was a passenger on White's boat was there to help stabilize him), and he was motored back to the mainland. You can see White's video at watch?v=X1zflop9zeY

Oceanic white-tips are ocean-roving scavengers constantly searching for a meal. They have wide-ranging tastes and will investigate anything, including resting seabirds and coconuts floating at the surface. In the Red Sea's busy sea lanes, they have learned to follow the loud noise of freighters traveling to and from the Suez Canal because their galleys tend to dispose of waste over the stern. This has been going on for more than a hundred years.

Nowadays, Red Sea liveaboards travel in convoys while making the long crossing from the mainland for safety reasons, but that means there can be a lot of divers in the water at one time -- and that can make easy pickings for the sharks. The liveaboards, with their onboard generators, compressors and big engines, make the same sounds as the freighters that oceanic white-tip sharks have learned to follow. The sounds ring the dinner bell for the sharks, and this is why they will approach divers closely near where their liveaboards are moored, looking for any sign of weakness.

Silent rebreather divers can attest to the fact that a large number of open-circuit divers together in the water can produce a deafening roaring noise from their regulators as they exhale air, which again can result in a problem with these sharks, as Dan White's video shows.

Baiting the sharks doesn't help matters. Diver Oliver Ohlendorf took pictures of a liveaboard crew baiting the water at Daedalus Reef to entice an oceanic whitetip a week before the shark attack that White filmed. While Daedalus Reef is 125 miles from the Brother Islands, sharks there have been regularly seen feeding at the sewage outflows from moored boats.

No matter where you're diving, on no account should any diver or boat crew harass any shark. It will usually make a close inspection, but then move on. If you're in the water with an oceanic white-tip shark and feel uncomfortable, leave the water as soon as practical. Never swim at the surface in the presence of an oceanic white-tip, because that is where they commonly find their food.

Since White's video went online, there have been more bites on divers by oceanic white-tip sharks. They haven't been as serious, but they're still very concerning. The Egyptian authorities' reaction was to temporarily suspend diving activities at the Brother Islands for all of December in the hope that the problem shark or sharks will move elsewhere.

-- John Bantin, author of Shark Bytes

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