What did really happen in Sinai 2010

by Dr. Erich Ritter
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Sinai incidents: such never happened before


The 5 shark incidents that occurred in 2010 along the shoreline of Sinai created quite a stir, thus I decided to summarize what truly happened. In the following paragraphs, I strongly lean on our scientific paper “Shark Cognition and a Human Mediated Driver of a Spate of Shark Attacks,” written by Marie Levine, Ralph Collier, Moustafa Fouda, Vincent Canabal and me that got published in the “Open Journal of Animal Sciences.”

The five incidents occurred along a 8 km beachfront north of Sharm el-Sheik, extending from Middle Gardens to Ras Nasrani in very shallow water between November 29 and December 5, 2011.

There were two components that we had to consider when analyzing the incidents: eye witness accounts and wound analysis. The latter showed a rather clear picture what species was involved. Although oceanic whitetips and mako sharks were quickly named to have caused these bites, a thorough wound analysis was essential. So Marie, Ralph and I started to work on the wounds and then compared. We agreed on all 5 incidents. 

Victim 1, 2 and 5 showed the same tooth impressions which were consistent with the dentition of an oceanic whitetip shark, Carcharhinus longimanus. Likewise we concluded that each animal was of the same size, indicating that a single specimen could have been responsible for all three bites. A specimen of this species was observed by three divers prior to the incident on victim 1 and also during the incident with victim 2. The picture shown is the animal that was seen immediately seen after the first incident. Although an estimated length for the shark was given, around 2.5 m, I highly doubt that the shark was that big since oceanics of that size have a much larger girth. The suggestion that the notch on the upper lobe of the caudal fin would have prevented the animal from successfully hunting, it highly doubftul. This very shark was then also seen (and filmed) again in Ras Za’atar, Ras Mohammed National Park, about 30 km to the southwest on 2 December, and again on 7 December, around midday, where shark interacted with divers without incident at Ras Mohammed. That oceanic whitetips interact with humans in the Red Sea on a regular basis is well known. Between 2000 and 2013, six incidents with oceanics were filed with the “Global Shark Attack File.” Considering the high numbers of divers frequenting the Red Sea, this number is rather low.

Then there was victim 3. The observed tooth imprints on the person’s leg were consistent with those of a mako shark. A witness, standing on the jetty close to the later victim, observed a mako swimming in his immediate vicinity. In close vicinity to this incident was the one of victim 4 who was bitten 10 minutes later. This suggests that it must have been the same animal. Of course, in a court situation one could argue that it could be possible that two sharks were there at the same site but not seen swimming together thus one just assumed only one shark to swim close to the victims. However, such a scenario is more than unlikely.

What the underlying motivation of this mako was to move from one victim to the other is everybody’s guess. On 3 December 2010, a shortfin mako shark was captured by local authorities of the National Park, South Sinai Sector. The tooth pattern on the medial thigh of victim 3 matched the unusual upper jaw dentition of the captured shortfin mako. The shark had sustained an injury to the right side of the upper jaw, resulting in a misalignment of the anterior, intermediate, and first three lateral teeth.  Additionally, photographs of the posterior of the shark showed what appeared to be a number of bites, which were comparable to another shark. This could imply that the caught mako was seen by other sharks as less fit. A photograph taken from the internal organs of the shark, including its liver, showed that this organ was unusually small, suggesting some malnourishment. If the shark was impaired to properly hunt can’t be said but it has been suggested that due to the malnourishment, it seeked atypical prey. I am not a fan of sharks biting humans because they might be hungry but this here is a case where such would make sense. Although the years have passed since these incidents happened, I am still wondering what the underlying bite motivations were.

Multiple bites, such as those sustained by 4 of the 5 victims, usually involve a strong trigger like food involvement. The sharks’ actions suggest that they had been previously fed by dive operators who often bring sharks close for guests to photograph. Although shark feeding is prohibited by law, some dive operators continue this illegal practice. We were shown a video in which divers fed the sharks by hand and kept additional food in waist packs, smiliar to “fanny packs” located above their buttocks. The wounds sustained by victims 1, 2 and 5, in which their hands were severed and their buttocks removed, suggests the shark was seeking food from the areas of the

body that iwast associated with prior feedings by divers. The severed forearm sustained by Victim 2 could also be associated with the prior hand-feedings of the shark by divers. These cases strongly suggest the shark responsible

had become habituated to being hand-fed in previous encounters with humans. Of interest, too, is the time of day the events occurred, with all five subjects attacked around midday. This could represent a time of day sharks had been fed previously. In addition to, hotel guests commonly feed the inshore reef-fish, despite signs along the beachfront cautioning them not to do so. There are numerous videos on public forums on the internet (youtube.com) of tourists feeding fish at Sharm El-Sheikh. There was even the anecdotal report that a hotel kitchen staff at one of the attack sites routinely provided guests with leftovers to feed the fish. Such practices may have contributed to the two shark attacks at Sharm El-Sheikh that occurred rahter close to the incident sercies, on 4 April and 20 October 2010.

Then there was the religious event after which sheep carcasses were dumped within 1.9 km of the shore by animal transport ships. After the carcasses were discarded from the ships, large sharks may have followed the dead animals as they were carried by currents and led the sharks close inshore near bathers, snorkelers, and divers. Most of the carcasses were removed from the water within 2 to 3 days, but some drifted ashore on beaches near the attack sites (Hesham Gabr, pers.comm.). Although this scenario sounds feasible, it is still questionable since this event occurs every year but no bites have been mentioned previoulsy or after that.

So what does this all mean? It can be concluded that likely a single oceanic whitetip and a single mako shark were responsible to the 5 incidents. Due to the similarity of some of the wounds and their locations, the oceanic’s motivation points towards it being conditioned and was expecting food from the later victim. Still totally unclear are the two incidents with the mako shark. Could it have been exploration? We will likely never know.

This incident series is one a kind that will remain in my mind since I still have plenty of questions.

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