Egypt Shark Attacks Spur Conspiracy Theories

A tourist stands at a closed beach in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. Nasser Nasser / AP

Not even Jaws can escape the volatile politics of the Middle East. In the past week the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh has been hit by a spate of gruesome shark attacks, with one person killed. Authorities have been scrambling to reassure tourists that the issue is under control. But the shark is still on the loose, prompting some Egyptian officials to accuse outside forces of sabotaging the country's booming tourism industry. In an interview with a TV talk show Monday, the governor of South Sinai, Mohammad Abdul Fadhil Shousha, came up with this gem: "What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark in the sea to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question. But it needs time to confirm."

Photos: Most Wanted Animals Phil Myers / University of Michigan

Huh? There are plenty of wacky conspiracy theories circulating around the Middle East (note Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contention that the U.S. government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks), but this one tops them all. Well, almost. A dive captain working in Sharm al-Sheikh also weighed in on the TV show, suggesting that the Mossad may have guided the shark into Egyptian waters through GPS tracking devices. Hmm, where to start with that one?

The problem is that those oddball theories are actually masking the seriousness of the issue. Despite the Hollywood stereotype of bloodthirsty sharks attacking any human in the water, attacks are actually quite rare. So it was a real anomaly when a shark thought to be an oceanic whitetip (or perhaps more than one) attacked one Ukrainian and three Russian tourists last week. Three of the tourists each lost an arm; the other had serious leg and back injuries. The Egyptian authorities declared open season on any sharks tooling around Sharm's resorts, and two—a mako and an oceanic whitetip—were killed by last Friday.

Problem solved, the authorities said. Until an elderly German tourist was attacked and killed by a shark on Sunday. "The water was churning like I was in a washing machine," a British tourist who was only a few feet away from the attack told the newspaper The Sun. "I was being thrown around in the blood. The shark was thrashing and tearing at this poor woman and I could barely keep my head above the water, it was so choppy."

That bloody attack was probably what started the conspiracy theories. Egyptian officials are all too aware that this string of attacks can seriously damage their multimillion-dollar tourist industry. The reality of what prompted the shark attacks is likely much more mundane. Marine biologists have speculated that a fisherman was likely chumming the waters in the area. There have also been reports that a boat carrying sheep may have dropped some of its cargo in the area, drawing in sharks. A team of shark experts arrived in Sharm al-Sheikh on Tuesday to investigate the attacks. It's unlikely they'll be contacting the Mossad.