Egyptian shark attacks: The government makes a clumsy response.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 13 2010 9:03 PM

Still Swimming With Sharks

Deadly maulings at an Egyptian resort lead to a clumsy government response.

An image of the Oceanic Whitetip Shark.
A white tip shark in Egypt

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt—A cluster of tourists gesture excitedly at the teal-blue waters of the exclusive Hyatt Regency beach in this Red Sea resort. Word is, there's a shark in the water. No, wait, not just one. "There are two!" they call out excitedly, pointing cameras.

In front of them, shadows dance under the surf. The crowd's anxiety builds as they realize they may be looking at the animals responsible for a bizarre string of attacks that maimed four tourists and killed one in the span of six days.

George Burgess, an American shark expert invited by the Egyptian government to help investigate the attacks, happens to be staying at the Hyatt. Herushes out in a small patrol boat, but there's nothing there. "I saw some beautiful reefs, but no sharks," he told me afterwards.

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This was not the first false alarm in a city now besieged by rumors and wild speculation. "There are four sharks, and they've all been injected with steroids by the Israelis," says Mohab, who touts for a tour company on a beachside boulevard. Mohab is convinced the attacks are a Zionist plot against the heart of Egypt's $11 billion tourism industry. The government, too, has lent credence to this idea: A week ago, one official suggested that Mossad might have attached GPS to a shark and programmed it to strike Egyptian waters.

Other theories are perhaps more mundane: It's not four killer sharks, but 400; they weren't turned on to human flesh in Egypt, but made the trek from the coast of Somalia; an entire generation of young sharks have turned on the human divers who feed them underwater so as to get a closer look; and so forth. *  All these stories reveal one piece of incontrovertible data: No one, including the Egyptian government, has any idea what's going on.

Already reeling from the spectacle of contested parliamentary elections two weeks ago, Cairo now faces another international PR battle and administrative flop. Official efforts to deal with the shark attacks have produced little more than a comedy of errors and a tragic death. And among the tourists and tourism operators along the coast here, trust in the authorities is nonexistent.

The shark attacks began two weeks ago, when the first tourists were mauled. The government responded by closing the beaches for 72 hours, until a pair of sharks that were suspected of being maneaters had been caught, paraded around the docks and slaughtered. Then, the next day, a 70-year-old German woman was killed by another shark on the Regency's beachfront, and the government once again shut down the beaches.

This time, the Egyptians called in experts from overseas. Only a few weeks earlier, the government had rebuffed international elections monitors who might have supported its claims that the highly-suspect parliamentary elections were "free and fair." Lesson learned, Egypt was now ready to make a public display of its reliance on outsiders like George Burgess to do the job. "Additional shark experts have been contacted to form a strong team to advise on the best solution on how to handle this situation," announced a press release from the Egyptian Chamber for Diving and Underwater Sports, after the German woman's death.

But the locals seem no more inclined than before to trust the government response. "The government made a big mistake, opening the beaches. A big mistake," said one employee of the Hyatt who did not want to be named because he was under orders not to speak to the media.

According to Burgess, the two sharks slain by the Egyptian authorities were clearly innocent of any crimes against humanity. Necropsies showed no signs of human remains, yet the government announced that one of the pair was the killer. "They care about money," explained the Hyatt worker. "They should have closed [the beach] for 10 days, 15 days, a month, to make sure the problem is solved."