Shark fever in the Red Sea
The divers never know what they will meet under water during a dive trip. As the experienced divers use to say, the sea is not an exhibition. You can expect many species, but maybe you won't have any stunning sightings in a week- or you will see something totally unexpected.
The Red Sea has a key role since the very first visits of the pioneers of diving. It was more than six decades ago when Hans Hass and Jacques-Yves Cousteau started exploring there, and especially the Egyptian Red Sea still very popular amongst divers. The first time visitors feel the same excitement as the first adventurers when they glance through the mask at the coral gardens even at the most crowded reefs. The few tourists who travel to the southern neighbour, Sudan, and dive at the healthy reefs there, can see a lot of reef sharks and in some places they will dive with hammerhead sharks or huge tiger sharks. But the majority of the divers who go to the safer Egypt don't expect huge predators. The most popular dive spots close to the lively resorts like Hurghada or Sharm Al-Sheikh are declining fast and nobody see sharks or manta rays there.
There are a few offshore dive spots with better chances. Those can be reached only by week-long liveaboard trips which experienced divers prefer, but it depends on the season and the luck what will they get.
Anyway, in the last few years the Brother islands, the Elphinstone and Daedalus reefs, and the St. John's area were famous about the shark sightings. The typical shark of these waters is the careful blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) which keeps a good distance.
The hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) very rarely swim close to the divers. The oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) are the most curious- they stay in the shallow close to the dive boats and you can spend an hour with them easily. They come close, they even touch the divers' fins. It's a thrilling and breathtaking experience, but many experts pointed out the oceanic whitetips are sometimes being fed from the dive boats so they don't interested in the divers but in the food.
The diving with the fast, 2-3 meters long, streamlined oceanic whitetips is special. Basically it's an easy dive in the big blue, as divers don't need to descend deeper than 10 meters and the sharks swim really close to the divers, so they need to decide well before the dive if they aren't afraid of these predators too much. An excited diver who moves too much and breath too fast attracts the sharks and the already nervous diver maybe will start panicking. Until this season it seemed a reasonable risk for a fantastic dive experience.
But something seems to change. The oceanic whitetips became more and more aggressive. They swim closer. They come faster. So the experts tried to educate the divers: „stay closer to the group, never do snorkeling with oceanic whitetips, never try to swim after them and touch”. In the beginning of June a french diver broke all these rules.
She and the other divers went snorkeling with an oceanic whitetip shark as it was a dolphin. She swam away a bit from the group, and she tried to dive towards the huge predator. The shark maybe made only a reflex defensive action but the woman injured badly- sadly she even couldn't make to the hospital alive.
The thousands of the foreign divers who visit Egypt regularly were shocked. We knew the sharks are dangerous but honestly we treated them as only usual animals. If somebody yelled „sharks, sharks!” in the dive boat many people took their masks and snorkels to swim with them as a nice leisure activity. There were responsible dive professionals who didn't let their customers to do this and told everybody the rules well before diving. But anyway, most of the people said there weren't even a single injury, so sharks are not more dangerous than dolphins.
In Egypt after the tragic shark attack they started a campaign to educate the divers and to finish the feeding of sharks from the dive boats. Everybody talked about ocenic whitetip sharks- but only until the next exciting news.
The well-known egyptian dive spot, the wonderful Elphinstone reef was famous about its reef sharks for a long time. But a few weeks after the whitetip incidents many divers told about the biggest shark encounter of their lives: some tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) sightings put the Elphinstone on the top of the wish list of many Red Sea divers. The huge, 4-5 meters long predators didn't go so close to the divers but needed to treat with even more care. Some luckier divers saw thresher sharks (Alopias vulpinus) at the Elphinstone as well. Many people who dive regularly in the area were disturbed. The tiger sharks and thresher sharks came from nowhere- and they went away in a few weeks. Maybe the Red Sea is changing? Nobody knows. And after the oceanic whitetip incidents, the special encounters at Elphinstone, came the news about the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) sightings from the Brothers and Abu Fendera area. The summer and autumn of 2009 made the Egyptian Red Sea again a No 1 destination for shark lovers. After the boom of the dive tourism from the nineties', with hundreds of huge dive boats and thousands of divers every single day nobody knows why the basically careful and shy sharks came back again. Certainly it wasn't a great wonder to see a few reef sharks during a week long liveaboard trip in the southern areas, but this season was really extraordinary.
The winter is usually more quiet. A bit less dive tourists travel to Egypt and in the past it wasn't the top season for shark encounters.
We'll see if this change this year. And we are curious what will happen next year. Maybe the sharks will appear at the dive spots which are closer to the popular resorts' shorelines or we still should choose a liveaboard trip for guaranteed shark encounters? Will the oceanic whitetips be a bit aggressive again? The tiger shark encounters were only a month long wonder? Everything can happen- this year proved again the sea is not a museum, so there can be very special dives even for seasoned Red Sea dive veterans.