No one knows why they come, why they leave — and where they go. Yet year by year during the winter months a school of dusky sharks — all of them female – gathers near where the Hadera Stream spills into the sea, close to the shoreline boulders, and are in constant motion.
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What is so special about this site that attracts 40 sharks? Perhaps it’s the warm water that the Israel Electric Corporation’s Orot Rabin power plant discharges into the Mediterranean. Researchers believe the sharks are attracted to the warmth — 10 degrees Celsius above the sea temperature elsewhere in the area. The sharks come in December and stay until the end of March. Where do they swim to afterward? No one has a clear answer yet. The research has just begun; there are many questions and few agreed-upon answers based on known facts at this time. What is certain, however, is that the tourism boom is already in full swing.
At 10 A.M. on a recent weekday, three motorboats and two kayaks were anchored close to shore, dozens of people peering from them into the depths and several people snorkeled nearby. Five meters below them were around a dozen scuba divers with air tanks and equipment, mainly cameras. Above the water hovered four drones, whose owners invested great effort in coordinating their altitudes to avoid collisions.
Treasure in the shallows
Near me on the beach were another 20 or so people who tried to follow the sharks’ movements in the shallow water. Five men sat on folding chairs in the water, holding fishing poles. When I looked into the screen of a drone operator next to me, within all this hubbub I saw close to two dozen large sharks swimming in the small area. All the action was happening around 20 meters from shore. On the weekends, there are so many people it’s impossible to move.
There is no knowing when the sharks first started coming to the area during the winter but the phenomenon was discovered only three years ago. Ran Golan, a veteran diver and an owner of the Out of the Blu diving club who lives in Modi’in, has dived at this site dozens or perhaps even hundreds of times since it was discovered but nevertheless, when he emerges from the water after a dive he is thrilled and bursting with adrenalin. For several minutes he doesn’t stop rhapsodizing about his experiences on the dive. His excitement is real and touching. Then, once he has calmed down a bit and sits down for some conversation with me, he explains: “This is a jewel that is indescribable. We have been given a treasure. For us divers it is simply amazing. People travel to the ends of the earth for experiences like this and now we have it right here, close to home, with easy access from the beach, without a boat, walking distance from the car. It’s simply unbelievable.”
Later, after coffee, a cigarette and a few deep breaths, he continues without pause: “It’s an especially exciting hunt experience. The camera replaces the rifle. We get only centimeters away from the sharks. Even now, just 10 minutes ago, a gigantic shark, maybe 300 kilograms swam so close to me I could have touched her. There is no greater thrill. At this stage we are already familiar with their movement in the water and we know how to move around with them. If we are calm, the sharks will approach us without fear,” Golan says.
'They are totally nonchalant [but] it’s not a walk in the park'
This is the second year that Golan and his partners have been operating his diving club during the winter months at the Hadera beach. At least two more clubs are operating alongside them.
On the morning we met, Golan had done two dives, each time with two customers. He provides them with the equipment and most importantly instruction before and during the dive in situ. He stresses that this is a very complex and dangerous site, especially for inexperienced divers. According to him, the danger is in the dive itself, which takes place in what he calls “an industrial site” with very strong currents and a problematic undertow. The sharks are less afraid. They are calm and not dangerous.
“They are totally nonchalant,” says Golan with a smile. During the season, from now until April, according to Golan there will probably be a total of about 25 days during which it will be possible to dive. And see sharks. On stormy days it is impossible to dive and in the days after a storm it is difficult to see the sharks because of limited visibility in the water. “It’s not a walk in the park,” he emphasizes.
The day before our meeting, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Diving Authority issued a joint warning stating among other things, that diving in the Hadera area “is not recommended and moreover endangers the public.
At the site there are strong currents and dangerous whirlpools as well as large amounts of fishing equipment such as hooks and loose lines that pose a risk to divers. The encounter with sharks is neither expected nor controlled and could endanger both divers and the sharks that come into the area. It is important to note that sharks are in danger of extinction and they are a protected natural value. Therefore, it is prohibited to harm sharks, harass them, feed them and so forth and anyone who does so is breaking the law and risking criminal punishment.”
Eyal Beigel, a Ph.D. student, runs the Top Predator Laboratory at the University of Haifa’s Morris Kahn Marine Research Station. Leading the research in which he is engaged are Dan Tchernov and Aviad Scheinin. Early in the morning, Beigel and I climb the rocks at the edge of the breakwater, near the fence of the power station on the northern bank of the Hadera Stream and opposite its estuary. A few minutes after we sat down on the rocks, Beigel pointed out a long shadow moving in the water and said: “There’s a shark.” Wow. Both of us went silent for a moment. Giving respect.
'Part of my work is petting sharks. Sounds good, right?'
In the fascinating conversation we had, Beigel explained that the situation of the sharks and the other top predators in the Mediterranean Sea is catastrophic. More than 100 million sharks are hunted worldwide every year and 90 percent of the shark population in the world has been annihilated during the past several decades.
The dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) that visits Israel’s shores is in danger of extinction because of the demand for shark fin soup. If we look at the top marine predators, we find that the whales are hunted and the sea turtles have almost disappeared. Sharks and tuna are among the few remaining top predators. Last year, toward the end of the winter, male sandbar sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus) also arrived and stayed at the site alongside the female dusky sharks.
According to Beigel, the appearance of the sharks in Hadera is a fascinating mystery. He defines the eastern Mediterranean Sea as “a marine desert,” an area where no one expects to see a flourishing population of top predators.
“Just as there are no lions and cheetahs in the Judean Desert, there aren’t supposed to be sharks here,” he says. He is cautious about what he says and parsimonious with explanations. His answer to most questions is: “We don’t know yet.”
Why only females? Why specifically here? What do they do in the summer? What do they think of the divers? What is their migration route? Are the ones that are here this year the same ones that were here last year? Beigel insists that we don’t yet have the answers. Even the supposition that they come here because of the warm water at the site is not yet confirmed.
Nevertheless, he does suggest all kinds of hypotheses. The most fascinating of these is that the female sharks that we see are pregnant and they come to Hadera because the warmth of the water affords them what Beigel terms “”conservation of energy.” In the absence of real data and because the research on the Hadera sharks has been going on for only two years – there are still no clear answers. Stay tuned.
A sure recipe for problems
Yigal Ben Ari, who is in charge of marine environment issues at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, begins our conversation with the words: “I don’t like what is happening today. There are too many schools of sharks in the water, some of them swimming with hooks in their mouth. The fisherman are sitting up top, there are people throwing food at the sharks and there are divers circulating in the water in difficult diving conditions, with strong currents and poor visibility. This is a sure recipe for bad things to happen.”
Then he explains that this an extraordinary and unique world-class phenomenon. It is also an opportunity to understand and get to know a population that is in danger of extinction. “It is exciting to see a shark so close up. If you have seen a shark, it’s an experience you will never forget. We have to take advantage of this excitement to preserve nature,” explains Ben Ari. He says the parallel is observing lions.
“If I were to tell you that you can see 40 lions in the wild in the Jerusalem area now – wouldn’t you drop everything and go there? The significance of this is that it is necessary to look out for both the sharks and the humans.”
Ben Ari enumerates the authority’s partners in organizing the site – the Israel Diving Authority, EcoOcean, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Israel Electric Corp. and the city of Hadera.
Ben Ari says that all of these need to be involved in organizing the site, but not necessarily as a marine nature reserve. The area is in any case not in a natural state, according to him.
His preferred solution is what he calls the sensible development of “ecotourism.” This would involve a number of measures, he says: the complete cessation of fishing in the area of the estuary; regulation of diving to permit dives in certain areas and in a controlled and professional way; prohibition of boats in the area of the estuary and development of the Hadera Stream Park, including the construction of high observation decks for viewing the sharks comfortably and without disturbing them. “This isn’t a feeding deck, heaven forbid,” Ben Ari stresses.” “It is an observation deck!”
The danger comes from human beings
The site in Hadera provides fantastic laboratory conditions. The place is easily accessible, the water is shallow and the convenient conditions make it possible to develop new tracking methods. The researchers are currently engaged mainly in acoustic and satellite tagging. Both kinds of tracking will in future enable scientists to follow the sharks’ movement and understand the size of the population, the frequency with which individuals come to Hadera and the purpose of their stay here.
The most intriguing study about which Beigel talks, very sparingly, is the ultrasound examination they are attempting to perform on sharks that they strap to the research boat for a few hours. Are they indeed pregnant? There is no clear answer yet.
Are they dangerous, I ask, and Beigel replies immediately: We are dangerous to them. There is no evidence or documentation of an attack by them. We, however, are destroying their habitat and without top predators we will not be able to understand the sea. The top predators are, he says, the best indicator of the quality of the environment. Beigel can’t say whether the divers at the Hadera site are bothering the sharks. He assumes that if the divers respect the animals and give them a reasonable amount of space, there’s no problem.
“The lack of knowledge can drive me crazy,” Beigel says in reply to my complaint about the large number of mysteries about the sharks.
“However, we must be patient and hope that in a few years, if we collect enough data, we will know a lot more about them. There is something hypnotic about the and it is perfectly clear that we have a crazy attraction to them.”
Then he shows me a large, red irritation on his arm and explains that he got it from friction with a shark’s skin as they attached it to the research boat in order to tag it. “In fact, part of my work is petting sharks. Sounds good, right?”