Egypt kept most of the 48km coastline off the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh closed to swimmers yesterday after a spate of shark attacks killed one European tourist and maimed several others in the past week.
Authorities diverted novice divers to the closest major resort, Dahab, about 80km north of Sharm. They reopened the waters off Sharm to experienced divers, except for a 3.2km stretch where the shark attacks occurred. Three spots were designated for swimmers and snorkelers — mostly closed bays, mangroves and a national park.
A team of US experts arrived to help investigate the unusual series of attacks in one of the world’s top diving destinations.
Sharm el-Sheikh is a major Egyptian tourist attraction, with a busy airport that brings in package tours from Europe and offers a warm and quick escape from frigid winter temperatures on the continent. Divers are drawn by the steep drop-offs of coral reefs just offshore that offer deep walls of coral with a rich and colorful sea life. There is also an observatory to view wild sharks.
Shark attacks in the area are rare and authorities were scrambling to prevent them from cutting into the crucial revenues that Red Sea tourism brings to Egypt.
Sharm’s trouble’s began in the middle of last week when sharks mauled three Russians and one Ukrainian tourist. One Russian woman had her hand bitten off and another lost a hand and a leg. But all four victims survived.
Then on Sunday, a shark tore the arm off a 70-year-old German tourist while she was snorkeling and she died almost immediately.
In the restricted area, tourists sunbathed on the beaches on Tuesday, but those who ventured to the water’s edge and tried to dip their toes in were asked to retreat. Others opted for hotel swimming pools over the sea. Water activities deemed safe, such as rides on glass boats, were fully booked.
Ziad al-Basil, deputy chairman of Egypt’s Chamber of Diving and Watersports, said authorities lifted some restrictions on Tuesday after an exploration dive by professionals, who deemed the area safe for experienced divers.
He said about 10 of more than 50 dive sites in Sharm remain off limits. Dive boat trips have fallen to about 25 a day, down from about 150 on average before.
However, al-Basil said the shark attacks have not driven away divers.
“Divers come here to see sharks. For beginners, we gave them alternatives,” he said. “For non-divers, their focus is on the resort as a warm destination. A big section of them go on glass-bottom boat and semi-submarines, these are fully booked.”
Experts have been at a loss to explain the reasons for the sudden spate of shark attacks.
Environmentalists have theorized that overfishing or depletion of food sources from other causes could be driving sharks closer to shore in search of food. There are also accusations that tourist boats are illegally dumping meat into the water to attract sharks for passengers wanting to photograph them.
Still, a third theory says sharks have been drawn to the area by the crew of a ship transporting livestock that dumped dead animals overboard.
One of the US experts, George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File in Florida, was in Sharm on Tuesday meeting with environmentalists and divers to collect information about the attacks. Two other experts, Marie Levine, head of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey; and Ralph Collier, author of Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century, arrived later.