The Red Sea Shark Attacks: Jaws Revisited

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A fisherman holds the shark which was initially believed to have attacked four tourists at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. It's thought the sharks responsible are still at large

Hoping to protect the local tourism industry over July 4, the beach resort's mayor initially downplays the danger of shark attacks — but is forced to bring in a marine biologist and a shark hunter when things turn really ugly. That was the story line in Jaws, Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster movie, and a similar scenario is currently being played out in real life at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

It began 10 days ago when the normally pristine tropical waters turned a murky red, after sharks mauled three Russians and a Ukrainian over a two-day period. With the world-renowned snorkel and dive center heading into the holiday high season, local governor Mohammed Shosha closed off the beaches for 48 hours, during which time the authorities killed two sharks. He then declared the all clear and reopened the beaches. But within 24 hours, in keeping with the Jaws story line, it became brutally clear that Shosha had been wrong: a German woman standing chest-deep in the water was killed by another shark.

"We did some efforts last week but I think we failed," Salem Saleh, director of the town's Tourism Authority told TIME on Monday. He acknowledged that the sharks responsible for the killings are probably still at large. The resort, which Egyptian authorities say draws some 4 million tourists every year, has become the site of an international biological murder mystery.

Over six days, five swimmers were attacked by sharks. That compares to just six attacks over the previous decade in Egypt, according to the Global Shark Attack File, a scientific archive that documents shark attacks worldwide. And at least six of those 11 incidents are believed to have involved the solitary oceanic whitetip — a shark species that doesn't usually rank among the top killers. More startling still is that the clear, coral-rimmed waters off Sharm el-Sheikh aren't exactly shark central. "The last sharks I saw were maybe four or five months ago," says Sherrif Khairat, a local dive instructor, who leads two or three dives a day. A shark sighting is considered "lucky," he says, because the animals are so rare.

And then the story gets downright creepy: scientists and government authorities declared Wednesday night, after a day of preliminary investigations, that at least two of the five attacks had been carried out by a single shark — a lone "serial attacker," says shark expert George Burgess, one of three American scientists flown in to find answers. "This is a really unusual event — not just because they occurred so close to each other in such a geographic space, but because of the fact that we can actually say with certainty that one individual shark was involved in two of them without fail," he says. "That has not been documented before."

Less than two weeks after the first of the series of attacks, scientists are still scratching their heads as to what motivated the rampage. They say there has never been proof of a shark acquiring a taste for human flesh, but there are no absolutes in science. They say the serial-killer shark is a member of a migratory species that often travels dozens of miles in a single day. But it could still be lurking in the same waters.

Egyptian authorities now plan to enforce the ban on swimming and water sports indefinitely — with exceptions made for expert divers and protected swimming areas. It's a decision that has the local tourism outfits already cutting their losses as Sharm el-Sheikh heads into high season. "We're not selling masks or any flippers because the beach is closed," says Bishoy Boutros, who hawks fins, masks and T-shirts, including one with a shark on it that reads "How 'Bout Lunch?"

State authorities say the shark attacks will hardly cause a blip in tourism revenues, but the governor's public posturing days after the woman's death — sending his deputy for a dip before a boatload of beaming reporters — suggests they fear the worst. Moldovan tour guide Elena Ribac says the shark scare has dramatically cut bookings. Tourists, she says, "come just for the sea, so if there is no opportunity to go to the sea, there is no reason to come here."

Local explanations for the shark surge varied wildly in the days following the first attacks, citing everything from climate change to the de rigueur blaming of local calamities on alleged Israeli plots. More sober explanations are fewer, and hardly final.

Local fishermen say their catches of fish that sharks would feed on are lower this year, and sharks could be seeking alternative food sources. Snorkelers may also have exacerbated the danger by feeding the fish, in violation of local regulations. "The fish get in the habit of staying in certain places where they get easy food," says Khairat. "After that the big fish that eat the small fish will also come closer — and then the bigger fish."

And then there's the sheep hypothesis. Last month, Muslims celebrated Islam's Feast of the Sacrifice, during which it is traditional for each family to slaughter a sheep — and the extra demand requires that many more sheep are imported. Ships transporting sheep were discovered to have dumped carcasses in the Red Sea, South Sinai authorities say, drawing sharks to the area. On Wednesday, the governor said authorities are taking legal action against one of the shipping companies.

The question is whether the sharks involved in the latest attacks will return to the waters off Sharm el-Sheikh. "These are open-ocean sharks that are living in an environment that is food-poor," says Burgess. "So when you do find food, you darn well better take advantage of it. Do they remember things? Sure, they remember where the good places to eat were, and they'll come back."

Running through the different theories is the sense that human behavior is conditioning the sharks to stick around. "Sharks can be trained and are trained, specifically in some of these feeding dives where they become accustomed to being fed by the humans," says Burgess. In some cases, sharks become so accustomed to the sound of a boat engine signaling feeding time that all boat operators have to do is rev it up.

But he cautions against overanalyzing, because sharks are still just big predators with little brains. "They're not connect-the-dots kind of animals," he says. "They're basically swimming, sensory machines." Sometimes, a killing spree, however rare, could be explained by little more than a convergence of the right variables. "Sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes they make mistakes. And sometimes we just happen to be in the wrong place at the right time — for them."