SHARM EL-SHEIKH: Egypt kept most of the 30-mile coastline off the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh closed to swimmers after a spate of shark attacks killed one European tourist and maimed several others in the past week.
Authorities diverted novice divers to the closest major resort, Dahab, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Sharm. They reopened the waters off Sharm to experienced divers, except for a 2-mile stretch where the shark attacks occurred. Three spots were designated for swimmers and snorkelers — mostly closed bays, mangroves and a national park.
A team of US experts arrived to help investigate the unusual series of attacks in one of the world’s top diving destinations.
Sharm El-Sheikh is a major Egyptian tourist attraction, with a busy airport that brings in package tours from Europe and offers a warm and quick escape from frigid winter temperatures on the continent. Divers are drawn by the steep drop-offs of coral reefs just offshore that offer deep walls of coral with a rich and colorful sea life. There is also an observatory to view wild sharks.
Shark attacks in the area are rare and authorities were scrambling to prevent them from cutting into the crucial revenues that Red Sea tourism brings to Egypt.
Sharm’s troubles began in the middle of last week when sharks mauled three Russians and one Ukrainian tourist. One Russian woman had her hand bitten off and another lost a hand and a leg. But all four victims survived.
Then on Sunday, a shark tore the arm off a 70-year-old German tourist while she was snorkeling and she died almost immediately.
On Monday, authorities closed around 30 miles (50 km) of Sharm’s beaches to swimmers and divers. But they eased the restrictions for experienced divers on Tuesday, allowing them back into the water except along the 2-mile stretch where the attack occurred.
In the restricted area, tourists sunbathed on the beaches Tuesday but those who ventured to the water’s edge and tried to dip their toes in were asked to retreat. Others opted for hotel swimming pools over the sea.
Water activities deemed safe, such as rides on glass boats, were fully booked.
The resort at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula has boomed since the 1980s. There are some 100 hotels, long stretches of sandy white beaches, desert safari excursions and a vibrant night life.
Ahmed Salah Al-Idkawi, deputy governor of South Sinai, said he did not know of any tourist cancellations to Sharm so far.
Ziad Al-Basil, deputy chairman of Egypt’s Chamber of Diving and Watersports, said authorities lifted some restrictions Tuesday after an exploration dive by professionals, who deemed the area safe for experienced divers.
He said about 10 of more than 50 dive sites in Sharm remain off limits. Dive boat trips have fallen to about 25 a day, down from about 150 on average before.
But Al-Basil said the shark attacks have not driven away divers.
"Divers come here to see sharks. For beginners, we gave them alternatives," he said. "For non-divers, their focus is on the resort as a warm destination. A big section of them go on glass-bottom boat and semi-submarines, these are fully booked."
Beach tourism is believed to contribute about 66 percent of Egypt’s total income from tourism, which is expected to reach $12.3 billion by the end of the current fiscal year in June, Tourism Minister Zohair Garranah was quoted as saying in state-owned Al-Gomhuria daily.
Experts so far have been at a loss to explain the reasons for the sudden spate of shark attacks.
Environmentalists have theorized that overfishing or depletion of food sources from other causes could be driving sharks closer to shore in search of food. There are also accusations that tourist boats are illegally dumping meat into the water to attract sharks for passengers wanting to photograph them.
Still, a third theory says sharks have been drawn to the area by the crew of a ship transporting livestock that dumped dead animals overboard.
One of the US experts, George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File in Florida, was in Sharm Tuesday meeting with environmentalists and divers to collect information about the attacks. Two other experts, Marie Levine, head of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey; and Ralph Collier, author of "Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century," arrived later.
Before Sunday’s fatal attack, authorities believed they had caught and killed the two sharks that mauled the other four tourists, but that drew criticism from environmentalists.
Al-Idkawi said authorities are waiting to hear the opinion of the US experts but it is unlikely that the hunt for sharks will continue as it has proven useless.
"I don’t think there will be a hunt. Scientific research will be better," he said.
A tourist stands at a closed beach in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt Tuesday, Dec. 7. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)