With summer well and truly set in, it is perhaps time to reflect on the big stories of spring. And one story was very big indeed. In May, a Sperm Whale, the largest species of toothed whale, washed up, sadly dead, near Marsa Matruh on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. The other tale is more sobering: a shark attack off the Red Sea coast that resulted in the victim’s leg being amputated.
by Richard Hoath
On March 15, a Sperm Whale was washed ashore about 10 km west of Marsa Matruh. From photos and film footage posted on social media the animal seems to be 12-15 m long and a male. Male Sperm Whales can reach 20 m in length and are considerably larger than the females. The head is hugely enlarged due to a vast amount of fatty tissue known as the spermaceti organ. It is thought that this serves as a pressure device for when the whales dive in deep water, and Sperm Whales are world champion divers. In 1991, a pair were tagged and monitored off the coast of Dominica in the Caribbean. In a series of dives lasting between 30-40 minutes, they regularly reached 600 m and the larger made one dive to 2,000 m. They may be capable of far deeper dives with evidence from stomach contents suggesting depths in excess of 3,000 m. The skin of Sperm Whales is often scarred with the circular marks of the suckers of the Giant Squid, the world’s largest invertebrate and itself approaching 20 m in length. The deep sea battles between the two leviathans have never been witnessed and can only be imagined.
Sperm Whales are rare in the Mediterranean as far east as Greek waters and extremely rare in Egyptian waters. There is a record from Port Said of two teeth collected in 1908-9. While they are called toothed whales they only have teeth in the lower jaw that fit neatly into small sockets in the upper jaw. They may be up to 27 cm long, and in the days of whaling were used by sailors to carve scrimshaw. So the Marsa Matruh specimen is rare indeed and has apparently been buried in deep sand with plans for the skeleton to be exhumed and sent to the new museum at Wadi El-Hitan.
Large whales are rare in Egyptian waters but not unknown. In May 2008, a Humpback Whale was recorded from the Red Sea off Baltim with two further recorded off Hurghada in September 2011. The Sperm Whale has not been recorded in the Red Sea probably because the shallows of Bab al Mandab at the entrance to the sea represent a barrier to a creature that hunts at such depths. In March 2010, a Fin Whale, the second largest creature on the planet after the Blue Whale, washed up at the El Ummayed Protected Area on the North Coast. To date, this is only the second firm record of the Fin Whale from Egyptian waters, possibly the third.
The second big story of spring has been of a shark “attack” — I will explain the quote marks shortly — of the Red Sea Coast at Ain Sukhna on June 4 resulting in one of the victim’s legs being amputated. As is usual with such stories the facts are hard to verify. It seems, however, according to the Governor of Suez Ahmed Helmi El-Hitami reporting through the MENA state news agency, that the victim was swimming 6 km offshore and that the man was bitten after bait was thrown into the water — a practice known as chumming. He was on a fishing trip with a group of friends.
Shark attacks are extremely rare in Egypt. Longer-term residents may remember an unprecedented series of attacks off Sharm El-Sheikh in 2010 resulting in a fatality and injuries but records of attacks are very rare and there are almost always explanations — the Sharm series was baffling. In the present case, if the facts are substantiated, then there are two very clear explanations.
Firstly the man was swimming six kilometers out in open water. While a number of shark species are found inshore such as Grey Reef Sharks and Blacktip and Whitetip Reef Sharks, these are generally smaller species though the Grey has a reputation for being pugnacious. But the open water is the realm of larger species that have been known to attack humans on very rare occasions such as the Mako or the Oceanic Whitetip (to my knowledge the Great White Shark of Jaws fictional infamy has never been recorded in Egyptian waters). The clue is in the name Oceanic. If the man was swimming, as the reports suggest, this would only have served to provoke the shark. Swimmers splash and flail in the water and sharks are highly sensitive to such disturbance — it is one of the ways they locate prey.
And the “ ” around attack earlier? Sharks do not just bite to feed but to test. If the taste is not good then the shark may stop the “attack,” which may be what happened in this case.
And then there was the supposed bait in the water — the chum, a noxious mixture of fish offal. This is a technique used illegally by irresponsible dive boats to attract sharks to the boat, presumably to impress the punters.
So here was a swimmer, not a diver, swimming in open water, a known haunt of larger and potentially dangerous shark species and there is bait in the water. It is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, some lessons seem to have been learned from the Sharm incidents in 2010 with the media reacting by quoting experts explaining just how rare an incident this is. I can remember in 2010 the response was to go out and kill a number of large sharks, parade them in front of the cameras and claim that they had gotten the killers. And then there was another attack. This time the response seems more balanced and while a 15-day ban on swimming off Red Sea beaches was declared, this seems a more rational reaction.
Of course the other point is that sharks are far, far more threatened by us than we are by them. Leading shark expert Mark Cawardine estimates there are about 30-100 shark attacks each year on humans. When you imagine the hundreds of millions of people each year using the oceans for food and trade and recreation, it is obvious what a drop in the proverbial ocean this is. And then millions, some put the figure as high as 70 million sharks are killed each year by us. Much of this carnage is to sate the taste for shark fin soup, especially in the orient. This is particularly unpleasant as the sharks are fished out of the water, their fins are chopped off and the still living animal is thrown back into the water to die a long and lingering death.
I’ll be back in London in July and will be making a point of passing by the headquarters of the Zoological Society of London at Regent Park’s London Zoo. Last summer they had an exhibition to expose the sheer extent of the illegal trade in wild animals. There were confiscated tusks and rhino horns, illegal furs, tiger bones and pangolin scales from the spurious practice of “traditional” Chinese medicine and harrowing footage of the trade in wild animals for pets. The last exhibit was hung on the wall and was labeled with a sign that read “The World’s Most Dangerous Animal.”
It was a mirror.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.