Sharks do not want to eat you. Terrestrial mammals such as we are not their natural food, an Israeli expert on apex marine predators explains. Fish are their natural food. Yet in early July, two women died after being bitten by sharks near the Red Sea resort town of Sham El Sheikh in Egypt, prompting the Egyptian authorities to temporarily close the relevant beaches.
An Australian woman, 68, died following a shark bite near Hurghada on Friday. The other woman, a Romanian reportedly in her late 40s, was killed on Saturday just half a kilometer away from the first incident. Which species of shark bit the women can only be speculated. The Red Sea has 44 species of shark and none of them particularly aspire to eat humans, but a few are big enough to cause fatal injury in the event of encounter.
How useful it is to close a beach after a shark incident is debatable, albeit understandable. Schools of circling sharks being driven to frenzy by human blood in the water is apparently more the stuff of cinematic schlock than marine reality, according to Dr. Ziv Zemah Shamir of the Morris Kahn Marine Research Station, University of Haifa. Again, we are no more to their taste than raw fish guts are to ours, and our blood to them is not necessarily nectar.
Shark attacks in general, and in the Red Sea in particular, are extremely rare, reassures Zemah Shamir. Jellyfish kill more people each year than sharks. (So do dogs, crocodiles, hippos, et cetera.) He cannot recall two incidents on consecutive days let alone at pretty much the same place in Sinai, he says.
“Thousands of people dive there every day, many of them coming especially to see sharks,” Zemah Shamir says. “The whole area is known to be crawling with sharks. And this almost never happens.”
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Of the roughly 500 shark species worldwide, and the 44 in the Red Sea specifically, one can count the ones that potentially pose danger to us on one hand, he says: “Most do only good things.”
Inquiring what good things they do leads Zemah Shamir to explain that sharks are crucial to the marine ecosystem. “They are at the top of the food pyramid in the ocean. They are the ones performing maintenance. They are the police of the sea, cleaning the sea of sick fish, increasing biodiversity and taking care that all the other trophic levels below them are in order. Removing them from the system will cause catastrophe at levels I don’t even want to think about,” he says.
Asked for more detail about why sharks don’t attack humans – in the sense that humans attack cows, for instance, to make meals – Zemah Shamir explains again: In their habitat, the food source is fish, and they only target mammals such as seals or people when there are no nice fish around to be had.
That's not an attack
But the idyll of shark tourism can be fatally marred by a recent wrinkle: feeding sharks to deliberately attract them in droves so one can swim among them and marvel. That could plausibly have been a factor in the recent incidents too.
Sharks of significant size like the mako and tiger prefer deep water, not shallow coastal seas. But if fish are being tossed by the bucketful into the waves, they will come.
“Big sharks don’t go near beaches unless there is food there,” Zemah Shamir says – and you are not that food. However, you could get into trouble, especially when the water around one is baited in order to attract droves of marine predators.
Driving home his point that sharks don’t attack humans in general barring misidentification, but that mishaps happen, Zemah Shamir recalls the 2021 incident where a man lost his leg to a shark, possibly a mako, in the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba. He was paragliding and basically hit the fish, Zemah Shamir says: “It reacted and bit him. You can’t call that an attack.”
But any event of shark versus sapiens makes headlines, while jellyfish fatalities do not. Sharks get terrible press. They will not attack unless disturbed, he says.
Submerged tourists are best advised to leave the sharks alone, he says, don’t try to attract their fishly attentions and take their picture, and absolutely categorically don’t try to feed them. “A couple of years ago in the sea off Sinai, people were chasing a white-tipped shark and it defended itself,” Zemah Shamir says.
What advice does he have for shark-sighting tourists? If you wish to swim on beaches thronged by sharks, do it in a big group, he advises. Asked if that’s so the shark will be more likely to eat somebody else, he explains that a big group will simply deter the shark – it won’t want to deal with the situation.
Also, remember that when a shark attacks, it swims from the depths upward. So don’t go snorkeling for shark thrills: dive.
And if, after all this, a shark has latched onto your limb? Do the same thing as if it were a Rottweiler, Zemah Shamir advises. Smack it on the snout and eyes until it opens its mouth.
Finally, is it plausible that the massive overfishing of the seas, including the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea, has diminished the food supply for sharks, causing the perception of increased attacks on humans – like two fatal attacks in two days?
Well, the starving eat anything, but that apparently is not the reason. Sharks are in just as much trouble as their prey fish. Overexploitation of the seas is emptying them of fish, and of sharks too: small and big, and especially the coastal species, have declined by about 90 percent in the last 50 years.
Asked which species are the most endangered, he answers simply: “All of them.”