2018, the year of change?
Egypt was shunned by European divers for several years after the Egyptian revolution (January 25 to February 11, 2011) and the Arab Spring (from 2010 to today). Between 2010 and 2016, the number of tourists decreased by 64%, inflicting on the country an unprecedented economic crisis. The new Egyptian president (since June 8, 2014) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has decided to rearm all of his country's military corps. Also, the famous affair of the two Mistral helicopter carrier ships destined for Russia and then sold to the Egyptians takes on all its importance in this shark story.
In fact, since 2016, the Egyptian coastguard authorities, which issue permits and authorizations to diving cruise ships, have prohibited access to the southern zone (under Port Berénice) without notice. The reasons given are linked to military tests on the two Mistrals off Port Berénice. This effectively closes access to Saint John's reef and Abu Fendira, representing from July to November more than a hundred cruise ship departures. As a reminder, the diving conditions allow these two areas to accommodate small diving levels (level 1 or Open Water Diver).
The coastguard sometimes gives at the last minute licenses for other areas, those offshore sites, places where there are more difficult diving conditions ... and sharks. So for some weeks, these dive sites ended up saturated of boats (up to 32 boats at the Brothers) with inexperienced divers who had to contend with the shark species considered probably the most unpredictable, the oceanic shark (Carcharhinus longimanus).
2018 was the year in which the dive industry was the most prolific but also the year we saw the most oceanic shark since 2009. The population has clearly increased and settled longer around the sites. In other years, oceanic sharks were rather passing. It is the daily observation of sharks that allows us to affirm that.
Four cases of bites were recorded, one in June and three in November. Two incidents at only 48 hours apart resulted in slight lacerations at the diver's hip and another damaged the diver's BC, but did not hurt him.
The most serious incident took place on November 3, 2018. Video footage of the interaction (which we decided not to release) shows an inexperienced diver appearing to panic (or at least waving his arms and kicking ). The shark then bites the leg of another nearby diver, who experiences severe loss of calf tissue. During this incident, and during the other reported incidents, no eating behavior was observed.
Although four cases of bites have been recorded for a short time in 2018, such interactions are very rare when compared to the thousands of divers who visit the Brothers each month. From memory, these are the first oceanic shark bites on divers. The Sharm-El-Sheikh attacks in 2010 by the oceanic shark (s) and which caused the surface Serious injury to two women and the tragic death of a third woman remain very isolated incidents given the millions of tourists who visit the Red Sea each year.
Thousands of internet users, diving professionals and divers from around the world have indulged in speculations, often simplistic assumptions. Let us not forget that in an ecosystem as complex as the offshore of the Red Sea, dozens of elements must be taken into account, and consequently the causes are multifactorial...
Deliberate or unintentional feeding (or “feeding”) (dumping organic bins into the sea) was identified as the main culprit in these incidents. Also mentioned were the incompetence of the guides who would give bad information to customers, and the bad behavior of divers who did not know how to interact properly with sharks. Admittedly, these factors can be related to the facts, but are not sufficient to upset the general behavior of a hundred predators in such a short period. Overall, there is probably less feeding, and the behavior of the divers has not changed. So why would these factors be the explanation in 2018, and not in 2007?
What we know
Although the practice of "feeding" was once quite common (sometimes with frozen chicken), it is much less common nowadays. Some rare cases have been reported (including Daedalus where no incident was recorded) but it is so futile that it does not explain the case of the Brothers. However, organic waste accidentally discharged, deliberately or negligently, from cruise ships directly to dive sites has certainly, over time, conditioned sharks to stay under the boats in the hope of finding easy food.
Illegal fishing by seafarers (from the boat or in the sea) inevitably leads opportunistic predators such as oceanic sharks to use easy food. Over time, sharks have associated boat and zodiac noise with the possibility of finding food. This is reflected directly in the sharks that are found from one week to the next with brand new hooks without the presence of fishing boats ... This is a recurring phenomenon that indirectly constitutes a form of non-natural behavior. feeding sharks.
As described in the first part, the increased pressure of the tourism industry around the two islands with what it implies clearly had its share of responsibility in this case. With the number of boats and divers encountered underwater, this is a continuous activity for more than ten hours a day. Sharks have been confronted with countless scenarios that may involve behavior against humans.
The necessary experience and certifications required to dive safely to the Brothers are also indisputable factors. At the sight of sometimes disastrous dive attitudes and levels observed underwater, divers' behaviors not knowing how to react to a shark's approach led to aggressive and defensive responses that increased the risks underwater. the water.
Unfortunately, not all guides have sufficient knowledge about sharks and the behaviors to adopt. When guides have the knowledge, they don't always know how to pass it on. And even when they convey the right information, divers need to apply it. It is also necessary to take into account the representations that sharks divers may have and the notion of stress in a situation: even well informed, the diver can behave inappropriately during an interaction.
Divers spend more and more time in the blue sharks territory. This can increase the territoriality or inconvenience caused by the presence of divers and lead to competition or intimidation.
The study of testimonies and images also ruled out the “rogue shark” theory. All four bites were performed by three different sharks identified in the existing database.
All in all, there is one thing that is sure is that we finally know only a few things! Indeed, it is impossible to quantify the short and medium term memory of sharks. Judging that they are able to assimilate most of the factors described above is very hypothetical. It is likely that there are other life-related causes and sharks' interpretation of the situations they encounter, but we can not identify and prove them. It is the limit of our observations that we must accept, especially to avoid anthropomorphism.
Government Directives, a first
In response, the Egyptian authorities decided on December 7, 2018 to close the Brothers to diving activities for the rest of the year. Wise decision of the government to avoid any escalation or potential more serious incident. This closure was extended until the end of March 2019. The Brothers were closed in an attempt to bring sharks back to a more natural behavior: hunting and feeding on the high seas rather than congregating near dive boats.
No punitive fishing project as orchestrated in 2010 following the incidents in Sharm-El-Sheikh (accompanied by illegal fishing by two Yemeni boats) was not planned. Instead, authorities set up surveillance of the situation around the islands, without interfering with divers and boats. The objective is to collect detailed information to remove the factors which cause sharks to congregate around dive boats and which could be the cause of more aggressive behavior. The results will allow effective procedures to be put in place. The results of these studies have not yet been officially published.
During the closing, the Diving and Watersports Chamber (Chamber of Diving and Water sport, or CDWS) has asked all dive guides and all cruise operators to participate in a mandatory shark awareness course. The training program was led by biologist Elke Bojanowski, founder of the project Red Sea Sharks.
In a statement released by CDWS on March 15, 2019, a list of new rules to be followed by cruise ship operators was released:
“All diving operations of CDWS members must comply with the provisions mentioned in the Governor's Decree, as follows:
- It is not allowed to spend the night at the Brother Islands. The dive activities will only be done from 6h to 16h, after which all boats will have to leave.
- The maximum daily capacity of boats on the islands is 18. 12 boats for Big Brother and 6 for Small Brother and only for the period mentioned in item No. 1.
- In order for cruise ships to obtain a navigation permit to visit the Brothers, they must first register on a weekly list to coordinate the CDWS and the coastguard.
- It is totally forbidden to throw organic waste in the Brothers area. They must be dumped in the open sea at a distance greater than 5 nautical miles. "
The effect of the new rules will undoubtedly be monitored. Reducing the number of boats in the area can somewhat lessen the pressure of the divers, although the limit of 18 boats still allows several hundred divers to visit each island every day at rush hour.
The aim is to reduce the potential stimuli Carcharhinus longimanus to stay on dive sites for long periods. This will give the industry the opportunity to review its practices, ensure appropriate training for all concerned, and ensure that violators of agreed practices are severely punished.
It also means that routes involving the Brothers will have to be shortened and modified as there are no other shelters for the boats to dock. To come and go every day would require a huge amount of fuel and would be prohibitively expensive financially and environmentally. Updates will be provided as more information is provided.
Ideally, the Brothers should be closed at least three months a year during the off-season (December, January and February) so that oceanic whitetip sharks resume their normal patterns of movement and can return to their natural habitat, the high seas, away from the islands, reefs ... and divers.
Ecotourism issues, the debate
The oceanic shark is the economic symbol of diving in Egypt. The ecotourism attraction it represents (more than 15 divers in 000) has earned it local protection today and Egypt, in the midst of an economic crisis, does not want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. However, let's take the context from another point of view with another animal: dolphins.
For fifteen years there have been cruises exclusively dedicated to dolphin watching. Today no real ministerial regulations have been put in place by the authorities. If tomorrow they came to prohibit access to dolphin sites or regulate the presence of boats as set up with oceanic sharks, would tourists still come if they have to stay less long on the coveted site (s) ( s) risking not to live the long-awaited meeting?
Yes nature is not a zoo, and yes, fortunately, the encounters remain wild, but will sharks be protected despite these new regulations? If they attract fewer and fewer divers every year, who will no longer have the opportunity to observe them as before, what will happen if new incidents occur? Will the authorities decide to protect the economy of their country by securing tourism and taking sharks again? Or will Egypt continue its efforts to protect a predator that once filled the state coffers?
Case to follow, no speculation should be made. Egypt has turned ethically towards an ecological path that must be encouraged. Many long studies must be conducted. The results will provide a way of managing sites and justify government action to conserve the ecological, economic and human aspects of sustainable shark diving activity in Egypt.
After 8 months of long and laborious work, I have the pleasure, finally, to make you discover the catalog (in French) of oceanic shark observations made in 2018 around the Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone.
Download the catalog here.
Text: Steven Surina / Shark Education
Steven Surina has been expatriated in Egypt since 2001. He grew up in a diving club run by his family. His various trips through thousands of dives in the company of sharks will lead him to study their behavior but also their fragilities and their conservation. Responsible and founder of Shark Education, he specializes in meeting sharks and offers themed trips and seminars. He works in partnership with scientists from all over the world and publishes several articles on the subject, including two unique books on human-shark interaction.
Photos: © Fabrice Dudenhofer
Fabrice Dudenhofer, born in 1983 in the South of France near Marseille, is an independent photographer. Passionate about scuba diving and photography, he collaborates since 2016 with specialized tour operators and publishes regularly in various magazines. Through its images, the goal is simple: to show everyone the beauty and richness of life under the surface while testifying to the fragility of this underwater world which, more than ever, is threatened by its diversity.
The editorial staff of Scuba-people would like to thank Steven Surina Shark Education for this excellent article.
The drafting also thanks Fabrice Dudenhofer for these photos full of magic.