Sharks live in the Arabian Gulf – but are they a danger to humans?

Fatal shark attack in Egyptian Red Sea resort has sparked fear among beachgoers

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Latest: Red Sea safety under spotlight after deadly shark attack

A fatal shark attack in Egypt has created a frenzy of fear among sea swimmers and beachgoers in the Middle East, with many vowing on social media to avoid the water.

The man, a Russian citizen, was killed in the resort city of Hurghada on Thursday, while horrified bystanders could only watch.

A video showing the attack, in which the shark circles the man before pulling him underwater in a pool of blood, was widely shared on Twitter on Friday.

But marine biologist Paul Hamilton, general manager of the National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi, said – despite a presence of many of the world's large sharks – a similar attack in the Arabian Gulf was extremely unlikely.

“It's absolutely horrific,” said Mr Hamilton, 45, from New Zealand. “I'm aware of it, I've seen it. It sends chills down my spine. But we have to put it back into perspective as to how incredibly rare that scenario is.

“I have been a marine biologist for 26 years and I've worked with a lot of the big sharks. I've done great white tagging in Australia. I have worked with tiger sharks and bull sharks.

“For me, probably one of the most peaceful creatures I know.

“If you were to go face to face with a polar bear, a saltwater crocodile, a grizzly bear, a wolf or anything of that nature, you're unlikely to walk away without an incident.

Sharks side-by-side with humans

“With sharks, it is remarkable how often humans and sharks are side-by-side and there is no incident.

“We're now looking at surfers in Australia with great whites directly under them – the shark paying zero attention and the surfer completely unaware.

“This just doesn't happen with a lot of these big predators. You don't just brush shoulders with a grizzly bear in the woods.”

A recent spate of shark attacks has placed the spotlight on marine safety in the Red Sea.

But a rarity of such incidents in the Arabian Gulf is not because large sharks do not live there.

A tiger shark was responsible for the fatal attack in Egypt. Getty

Tiger sharks

The animal responsible for the fatal attack on Thursday was a tiger shark, Egypt's Environment Ministry said on Friday.

Large tiger sharks, as well as bull sharks and many other species, can be found in Gulf waters, Mr Hamilton said.

The species, so-called for the striped pattern on their skin, is the second-largest predatory shark after the great white and can reach lengths of more than five metres.

“Tiger sharks are here in the Arabian Gulf,” said Mr Hamilton. “One of their key food sources here – we just released 157 sea turtles back to the wild after rehabilitation and this is their primary food source. So there's absolutely no reason why a tiger shark would not be in the Arabian Gulf.

“I don't think they're common. I don't know of any resident tiger population. I think they're very transient moving around, but they definitely do come through the Gulf. There's absolutely no doubt about that.”

A bull shark swims in a tank at the Lisbon Oceanarium. EPA

Bull sharks

Another shark often associated with attacks on humans is the bull shark, which can swim in both seawater and freshwater, meaning encounters with humans happen more often around the world.

“The bull shark is a lot more common than the tiger here,” said Mr Hamilton. “Of all the negative incidents in the world, bull sharks are more involved than tigers. We don't have that [in the Arabian Gulf] like Australia where bull sharks are an issue, around Sydney where they are right up in the shallows, and then you have marine mammals like seals swimming around.

“[An encounter here] is so extremely unlikely. The water gets really salty up in the shallows for most of the year in the UAE, whereas down deeper in the channels, the salinity is different, the temperature is different. The majority of the marine life is down there and these channels are way offshore. That is where the majority of this marine life is hanging out. Not on JBR beach or anywhere like that.”

A hammerhead shark at the new SeaWorld in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Hammerhead sharks

Sightings of both the scalloped and the great hammerhead – named after their unusual shaped heads – have been recorded in the Gulf, Mr Hamilton said.

“A lot of these species may not be big resident populations,” he said. “They are just kind of coming through on routes we describe as cafes – they have a particular place where they like to snack and then they head to another area.

“I have never seen hammerheads here myself, but I know fishermen who have.

“Of the sharks that I see regularly in the Gulf, I see a lot of black-tip reef sharks, lemon sharks, bulls on a rare occasion. There's the blacktip shark, which looks like it’s got that body of a sporty looking shark that people have designed their fears around, but they're out in open water.”

Whale sharks at St Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean in 2022.

Whale sharks

The huge whale shark – the largest fish in the sea – can reach lengths of more than 18 metres. Yet it is known as much for its size as the fact it poses almost no threat to humans.

Though despite its docile nature, the giant animal must still be respected – as Mr Hamilton has found out.

“The only scar from a shark on my body is from a whale shark,” he said,

“Those whale sharks that got stuck in Dubai Marina, we had to capture them and release them again, out in open water. They don't have the typical tooth that people associate with a shark bite. They are a filter feeder so they feed on plankton. Their skin, however, is incredibly abrasive and they're a big, powerful animal.

“My only message is if you are lucky enough to encounter a whale shark, you've probably saved hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel, so take as many memory photos as you can, but just respect their space, because they are the world's largest fish.”

The great white shark is the largest predatory shark. Getty

Great white sharks

The most famous species of shark is undoubtedly the great white, the largest predatory shark and star of the Hollywood blockbuster Jaws.

But do they exist in the Arabian Gulf?

“I would say absolutely not,” said Mr Hamilton. “But I'm not the one that can say it without an absolute doubt. Because I don't know.

“But I can tell you that there's nothing here conducive to what a great white is interested in. You're looking at a similar likelihood of a beluga whale coming from the Arctic.”

Updated: June 14, 2023, 12:08 PM