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.

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."

Hyatt staffers are not the only ones who say they have been asked not to talk to the press. Diving center managers told me they had been requested not to speak to journalists, while local officials and experts all referred me to the government spokesman. When I asked the spokesman for permission to speak to the Egyptian side of the research team, my request was denied.

So far, no one, including the experts, has a convincing explanation for the sudden change in shark behavior. The working (and credible) theories start with overfishing of tuna, which may have limited food sources out to sea and encouraged the sharks to forage closer to the resorts. Or maybe the sharks were drawn to a trail of sheep carcasses dumped over the side of cargo ships bound for Jordan, their appetites whetted for mammal flesh.

Most likely, Burgess suggests, it's a combination of these factors and others. According to his analysis, at least two different sharks of different species have been involved in the attacks. That suggests we're not dealing with "a crazy shark, the killer that stands on the roof and shoots at anybody who walks by," he says. Instead, a series of changes in the ecosystem might have made nearby sharks more inclined to bite people.

If few people know what led the sharks to go on a rampage, fewer understand what the Egyptian government is doing to stop the attacks. I hear about shark nets being deployed to keep the killers from the shores, mannequins being dropped into the water to bait them from the depths, and ultrasound rays being used to zap them underwater. According to the deputy governor of South Sinai, Ahmed Saleh al-Idkawi, eight members of the Marine Biology Institute are working on the case, although he could not elaborate how. Five National Parks boats are being used, but he could not explain where. And people from the environmental department of the South Sinai were involved, but he could not say in what capacity.

"I'm only a spokesman, not a scientist," Al-Idkawi said. He did tell me the Egyptian investigators were studying photographs and videos of the maneating sharks taken by divers, snorkelers and beach revelers before, during and after each attack. And that they were "studying biologically what's really happening in the water right now."

Meanwhile, the Egyptians working the main drag at Namaa Bay and elsewhere around Sharm worry their government's apparent ineptitude will cost them tourist dollars—and that its haphazard information campaign hasn't helped assuage the crisis, either. Recent news suggests the authorities are still inclined to act now and think later: On Sunday night, the government announced it would reopen the beaches in Sharm without having any clear sense of why the sharks attacked or how to prevent the same thing from happening again. There will be watchtowers and patrol boats around designated swimming areas, but little else in the way of new safety measures.

When Leanne Webb arrived here from the United Kingdom with her boyfriend, she was told by her tour operator swimming was not allowed because of a recent string of attacks; then it was safe, and then suddenly it wasn't. "We've heard so many different stories, there's no way I'm going in at all. No one knows what's going on, we had to buy the English newspaper just to find out," Webb says as we stand with our toes in the surf, as far as either of us apparently wants to go.

Correction, Dec. 14, 2010: The article originally and incorrectly said the sharks "made the trek [to Egypt] from Africa," even though Egypt is part of Africa. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.