Deadly Red Sea shark attacks puzzle scientists

shark, shark attack
Marine biologists are scratching their heads over the spate of shark attacks near Egypt’s Red Sea port of Sharm El-Sheikh, the BBC reports. The waters near the city, which are popular for swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers, have seen attacks that have left one tourist dead and four injured in the past week.

The attacks started last week when a shark bit three tourists in a single day. Since then another swimmer has been injured and last Sunday a German woman was killed very close to the shore. Most of the beaches are now closed and authorities are warning people to swim in groups and avoid swimming at night.

The attacks were carried out by more than one shark from more than one species, including an oceanic whitetip and a mako. Marine biologists say this is “highly unusual”. They’re unsure what has caused the attacks, but suspect that when a cargo ship dumped a load of animal carcasses overboard near the shore it might convinced the sharks that it was a new feeding ground.

The mako has since been caught, but the oceanic whitetip, which is believed to have killed the German woman, is still at large.

[Photo courtesy Johanlantz via Wikimedia Commons]

Three swimmers injured by shark attack in Egypt

shark, whitetip shark, Egypt, shark attackThree Russian tourists have been injured by a shark in the waters off Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, the BBC reports. The Red Sea resort, popular with swimmers and scuba divers, rarely has problems with sharks. It appears to have been an oceanic whitetip, which Jacques Cousteau once called “the most dangerous of all sharks” in his book The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea.

One of the victims is in critical condition. Most of the waters around Sharm El-Sheikh have been made off-limits until authorities can capture the shark and release it into the open ocean.

There have been some grim incidents involving sharks in recent months, including the human remains found in the stomach of a shark in the Bahamas. That said, it’s important to remember that the average swimmer has a very low risk of being attacked by one. You’re much more likely to drown. So if you’re into the ocean, keep an eye out for sharks, but be more aware of things like weather and currents.

[Photo courtesy Thomas Ehrensperger via Wikimedia Commons]

Israel complains about travel warning, gets change

There are two important steps to take in getting what you want in the travel world. First, you have to complain. Next, you need to do it to the right people. Israel did both, and it seems to have worked out fairly well for the country.

The problem started with a U.S. State Department travel warning for Israel five days ago. The Israeli government, according to the Associated Press, griped that it “unfairly singled out an Israeli resort,” Eilat, on the Red Sea. A new warning has since been issued, the AP continues:

The new warning says only that Americans in southern Israel “should be aware of the risks and should follow the advice of the Government of Israel’s office of Homefront Command.” It makes no mention of Eilat.

The Tourism Ministry in Israel noted that the statement from the State Department didn’t include the Jordanian resort Aqaba. As a result:

“This advisory gives a prize to terror and undermines regional stability and the sense of security that Israel gives to everyone who enters the country,” the ministry said. “Differentiating Israel from its neighbor that actually suffered loss of life is improper and lacks balance.”

[photo by kleindavid via Flickr]

Somaliland adventure: Bumbling in Berbera

Besides the painted caves of Laas Geel, the most promising road trip from Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa is to Berbera, 160 km north of Hargeisa and the country’s main port on the Red Sea. Nobody knows how old Berbera is, but it’s been an important port since ancient times and is mentioned in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek sailor’s guidebook from the first century AD. It boasts beautiful coral reefs, a lighthouse with a sweeping view, and a historic synagogue.

We got to see none of these things, but our trip was educational to say the least.

I and my travel companions, Swedish photojournalist Leo Stolpe and a Somali expat who doesn’t wish to be named, hired a driver through my friends’ hotel. Since we did it on short notice the hotel owner couldn’t get one of his regulars and had to hire someone he didn’t know. He explained to the driver that we wanted to see everything and we’d be out all day. He also told him that if he did a good job he could expect more work in the future.

The driver seemed friendly enough. He spoke decent English and was in good spirits as we left. He was in even better spirits when he stopped to pick up a large bundle of khat, a narcotic plant. I noticed he spent a lot of money to get a choice bundle with lots of young shoots and leaves that would guarantee a strong effect.

First stop was the shrine of Sheikh Yusuf al-Kownin Aw-Barkhadle, on the highway north of Hargeisa. Aw-Barkhadle was a devoted Muslim who came from Harar to defeat a false holy man who was fooling the people with his magic and sleeping with their daughters. When Aw-Barkhadle told the charlatan to renounce his evil ways, the man challenged him to a magical duel. Aw-Barkhadle let him go first, and the man waved his hand and opened up a tunnel through a mountain on the outskirts of Hargeisa.

Aw-Barkhadle shrugged and said, “That’s simple. What’s difficult is passing through.”

Enraged, the false holy man arrogantly walked into the tunnel. Aw-Barkhadle ordered the mountain to close by the power of Allah and the evil one was entombed inside. To this day when Somalis pass by this mountain they throw rocks at it or slap it with their sandals. Its stone is never used to build houses.

The shrine is a simple affair of whitewashed walls trimmed with green, the color of paradise. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but I still felt a strange atmosphere to this building, shining brilliantly in the sun amidst a stony plain of thorn bushes and unmarked graves.

%Gallery-93452%The road to Berbera had a dozen police checkpoints. Since our route took us only along the main highway we had permission from the police in Hargeisa to travel without a bodyguard and we experienced no trouble at the checkpoints. Soon we could smell the sea air and we drove through the busy port. Past Ottoman mosques and colonial-era bungalows we could see giant freighters moored in the glittering water. We stopped at the Maansoor Hotel, which has an excellent restaurant with a view of the sea, and the added bonus of the only dive shop in Somaliland. Our driver had been chewing khat constantly for almost two hours, but didn’t seem to be affected by a loss of appetite the drug usually gives and we all enjoyed some wonderful fried fish. We rented some gear from the dive shop, checked the map to see how to get to the coral reefs, and headed out.

Then the trouble started.

The coral reefs are three kilometers outside of town. A coastal road leads there, but we found the road blocked by soldiers in a “technical”, a pickup truck with a weapon mounted on the hood, in this case a heavy recoilless rifle capable of punching a hole through our engine block. The soldiers politely but firmly told us we couldn’t pass. Luckily I remembered the map showed a more roundabout road that would get us around the military zone and to the coral reefs.

The driver didn’t want to go and refused to ask anyone for directions. Luckily our Somali friend managed to get someone to tell us which way to go. The driver grumbled all the way out of town, saying this wasn’t part of the deal, that we only said we wanted to go to the beach, etc., etc. Our Somali friend tried to reason with him, reminding him that he had been hired to take us all around, but to no avail. After a few minutes of obviously not trying to find the alternate road, he turned the car back towards Berbera.

We were getting pissed off. Berbera’s main attraction is the coral reefs, but our khat-chewing driver didn’t care. Not listening to reason in either English or Somali, he drove us straight to the beach and parked the car. He’d gone on strike, and sat glumly staring out the window chomping on more khat.

Leo, being a good travel companion, gave me some solid advice.

“Look, Sean. This is the fourth country you’ve been to that’s on the Red Sea and you’ve never been in the water. Just forget about this guy and let’s go swimming.”

Good plan. The beach was clean, the water as warm as a bath. We swam out and dove under, hoping to find some uncharted coral reefs. We didn’t have any luck but had a great swim anyway. When we finally made it back to the car our driver, teeth stained green with khat, rounded on us.

“Where have you been!? It’s time to go!!!”

We tried to calm him down and said we’d head back to Hargeisa after stopping at the dive shop to return the equipment.

“No!” he declared. “I’ll drop off the equipment next time I’m in Berbera.”

Yeah, sure you will, I thought, but said, “It will only take a minute.”

“We don’t have time! It will be dark soon and I won’t take any more side trips.”

“Side trips? The dive shop is right over there,” I said, pointing. “We have to drive past it to get to the highway.”

Even Mr. Khat couldn’t argue with that logic, so grumbling all the while he stopped at the dive shop and glared at us until we were back in the car.

“Where’s your guard?” he demanded. This was the first time he had mentioned it.

“We have permission from the Hargeisa police to travel without one, we already told you,” Leo said.

“I won’t drive without a guard!” Mr. Khat shouted.

Our Somali friend reasoned with him in their own language. After a minute the driver grunted and headed out.

At the first police checkpoint outside of town, the cops inspected our papers and let us through, but our driver wouldn’t budge. He started shouting to the police that he didn’t want to drive at night without a guard and insisted one of the cops get in the car and that we all go back to the station. The sun was setting and we were headed in the wrong direction.

Our Somali friend muttered, “This is a shit man.” I was tempted to ask how to say that in Somali.

Mr. Khat had really worked himself up into a fever pitch now. He was ranting and raving, obviously suffering a bad trip from the drug he’d been eating all day, and once he got to the police station he vowed he’d leave us there. The police chief stepped in, and a long debate ensued about whether we had to hire a officer or not. A call to higher authorities decided that we would. As that was being arranged our “driver” came up to me.

“Where’s my money?” he demanded.

“The agreement was that you’d be paid when we got back to Hargeisa,” I said as calmly as I could, which wasn’t very calmly at all.

“I WANT MORE MONEY!” he screeched.

“For not taking us anywhere? I don’t think so!”

OK, that’s not what I really said. I can’t print what I really said. In a moment the cops jumped between us and the driver started threatening the police chief. Yes, the police chief. A club brandished over his head shut him up, but only just barely. The police chief told him in no uncertain terms to take us back to Hargeisa, that we’d pay for the police escort, and we’d pay him what we agreed on and not a shilling more.

So it was decided. The drive back was spent in glum silence, except for the smacking of our driver’s lips as he gobbled down more of his ridiculous little leaves.

There’s a lesson in all this. Somaliland doesn’t have a real tourism industry yet, and visitors need to find an experienced driver and make it clear to him from the beginning what they want. Drivers need to understand they’re being hired for the day, not for a certain number of kilometers. Hotel owners need to find reliable drivers. They need people who are relaxed, enjoy their work, and are flexible with international visitors who want to be shown everything.

And they need to find people who aren’t addicted to drugs.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on travel in Somaliland.

Next time: Somaliland, building a nation.

World’s oldest Christian monastery gets a remodel

Egypt´s top archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass announced the completion of a major remodel for one of Egypt´s most important archaeological treasures.

The Monastery of St. Anthony is believed to be the oldest surviving Christian monastery in the world, having been built to house the grave of one of the founders of monasticism, St. Anthony, when he died in the year 356. A $14.5 million restoration has fixed many of the monastery’s buildings, including the original fourth century church. Workers also installed a modern sewage system to deal with the estimated million visitors a year who come to worship and to admire the colorful paintings in the churches. These paintings have been painstakingly restored. St. Anthony’s Monastery is one of many interesting sights to see in Egypt besides the Pyramids and the Sphinx.

The monastery is nestled deep in the Red Sea Mountains in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. St. Anthony lived in a cave near here and started to attract followers during his lifetime. Unable to shake these eager followers, he established a rule whereby they could live together but still have an ascetic life. His ideas on monasticism were hugely influential on early Christianity. St. Anthony is one the most important saints for Coptic Christians, who make up ten percent of Egypt’s population.%Gallery-65553%