If any mention of sharks is enough to worry you that your next vacation could end in a scene from Jaws, you’re in the wrong place. With the most notorious reputation of any modern predator, who can really blame you? But if you’re thinking about booking a trip to Egypt, Israel, or any of the six countries that border the Red Sea, just how irrational is this fear?
The bad name given to sharks is unhelped by Hollywood. But is there any truth to those scenes of gaping jaws rising from shallow waters to devour screaming swimmers that we see on the big screen? And are there any sharks in the Red Sea? The truth is, sharks rarely attack humans. As opportunistic feeders, these creatures would much rather feed on fish, seals, and sea lions than human flesh. But this isn’t to say the 44 species of shark that populate the waters from Suez right down to the Bab el Mandeb strait aren’t fascinating.
The Red Sea is a major hotspot for scuba diving, and snorkeling, with over 1,000 species of fish thought to inhabit the warm salty waters. Among these creatures are the seven spectacular species of sharks in our guide. Our list is by no means exhaustive, but it does look at great hammerheads, ever-elusive tiger sharks, and some of the gentle giants of the shark world. Find out below how to increase your chances of a rare encounter and which species you should avoid down below.
Grey Reef Shark
One of the most formidable yet familiar species, grey reef sharks are limited to the Indo-Pacific Oceans but can be found as far as Costa Rica in the West, right down to the waters off Madagascar. They’re the most common shark species in the Red Sea, and as a requiem species, they populate warm shallow waters and drop-off bays all year round.
Characterized by their streamlined body, broadly rounded snout, and beady circular eyes, male grey reef sharks can reach up to eight feet in length, but most are less than six feet. Grey reef sharks are easily identifiable from their black-edged tails, white-tipped dorsals, and dark-tipped fins. Although endangered, they’re a familiar sight to divers in the southern Red Sea. They’re often spotted in waters less than 60m deep and at dive sites like St. John’s Reefs, one of the largest marine parks in the Red Sea, consisting of 10 unspoiled coral reefs and stunning underwater vistas.
Grey reef sharks are curious and known to approach divers. Although they are considered more aggressive than other species, they only act on it when threatened. Grey reef sharks are responsible for one human fatality since records began and 24 attacks in total. But they’re essential apex predators to coral reefs and help to balance the Red Sea’s marine ecosystems.
Oceanic Whitetip Sharks
When you think of Egypt, it’s probably Giza’s Pyramids, the River Nile, and the Great Sphinx’s that first come to mind. But if you’re an avid diver, one reason you might flock to the land of the Pharaohs is for the diverse marine ecosystems and spectacular coral reefs.
Sharm El-Sheikh is one of Egypt’s coastal tourist hotspots, with resorts lining the stretches of white sand beaches. Shark attacks are rare in any part of the world, but a wave of terror rippled through the bustling resort town in 2010 when five shark attacks took place in the short space of a week. The culprit? An unlikely contender but a force to be reckoned with nonetheless. An oceanic whitetip shark, caught by fishermen and identified by its battered fin, was accused of causing havoc.
So should this predator be feared? The whitetip is one of the most abundant sharks in the Red Sea, and this solitary species is usually known for being timid rather than aggressive. But these large-bodied and stocky creatures have been known to target plane wrecks and snorkellers and are responsible for more than a few human fatalities. Whitetips are faster than tiger and bull sharks and are recognizable by the mottled white markings on their fins. It’s unknown what caused a spike in aggression in Sharm El-Sheikh’s oceanic whitetips, but even though species is generally not to be feared, it’s safe to say we won’t be going near one anytime soon.
One of the region’s rarest and most dangerous species of sharks, tiger Sharks patrol the open ocean, and many divers only dream of an elusive encounter. Tiger Sharks can grow up to 18 feet in length, making them the fourth-largest shark species and second-most formidable predator.
Their sharp serrated teeth and powerful jaws make their diet the most varied of all shark species. Tiger sharks are non-selective feeders and consume everything from crabs, squids, and turtles, to other sharks and even mammals. They’re responsible for a recorded 111 unprovoked attacks on humans, second only to great whites.
True to their name, dark stripes adorn the slender body of tiger sharks, but these fade as the shark matures. Their distinct characteristics make them easy to distinguish from other requiem sharks, like their grey reef relatives. Tiger sharks have broad heads, blunt snouts, and white undersides. For the possibility of a chance encounter, head to the Red Sea’s Rocky Island, Safaga, and Elphinstone dive sites. But nomadic and nocturnal by nature, you’ll want to keep your GoPro handy because tiger sharks aren’t likely to hang around.
This distinct shark needs no introduction. Easily identified by their odd scalloped-shaped heads and wide-set eyes, hammerheads are one of the most fascinating species, not only in the Red Sea but worldwide. Found in tropical waters, they patrol open oceans and shorelines in large groups of up to 20 but favor coral reefs. Hammerheads inhabit the famous Jackson Reef in the northern Red Sea and the Straits of Tiran from July to September. They’re also often spotted in the southern Saudi Arabian and Sudanese Red Sea from May to July.
Hammerheads are aggressive and defensive hunters. Like most species, they won’t actively seek human prey but can be provoked and are known to attack. Although only 16 incidents have ever been recorded, with no fatalities, hammerheads are still a force with which to be reckoned. The average hammerhead reaches 13 feet in length and weighs around 500 pounds, but the largest great hammerhead, a rarer and endangered variation of the species, was recorded to measure 20 feet and weigh 1,000 pounds.
Hammerhead sharks benefit from 360-degree vision and can see above and below at all times. They’re pelagic predators, meaning they hunt in open seas, far from land but often near the water’s surface. But humans pose more of a threat to hammerheads than vice versa. Hunted for their fins, hammerheads are critically endangered, and their existence in the Red Sea continues to be threatened.
Although little is known about the migration movements of these gentle giants, each year, they appear in their dozens across Egypt’s northern and southern Red Sea. Often cruising the shallows and nipping to the water’s surface, whale sharks feast on plankton and pose almost no danger to humans.
The largest whale shark adults can reach a staggering 60 feet in length, maturing at around 30 years. Their old age of maturity contributes to their vulnerability, but whale sharks can be known to exceed 100 years of age. They’re among the largest fish species and owe their name to their size. But their appearance is also characterized by their distinct flattened heads, short snouts, grey-brown bodies, and the white spots and abstract stripes they sport.
Unlike most sharks, whale sharks’ mouths are positioned at the front of their head. Despite their 300 rows of tiny teeth, they’re also filter feeders like grey nurse sharks and usually boast 20 filter pads to consume small fish, plankton, and crustaceans easily. Graceful and harmless, whale sharks are welcome inhabitants of the Red Sea and can be spotted at the Tiran Strait’s Jackson and Woodhouse Reefs from March until July.
Unique in appearance and occasionally aggressive, thresher sharks are found in temperate and tropical oceans but can tolerate very cold water. While they’re regularly sighted at famous Red Sea diving spots, encounters with this solitary and elusive animal should not be taken for granted.
Thresher sharks are easily recognizable and impressive hunters with huge eyes and a long, scythe-like tails for stunning and even killing small prey. Still, thresher sharks pose little threat to humans, primarily because they are deepwater sharks and known to be very sensitive to light and sound, easily scaring and scattering. It’s unlikely you’ll see a thresher shark unless deep-sea diving, and they’re one of few species whose population is highest from September to February.
Thresher sharks are most often spotted around the Brother Islands, a small archipelago in the Dact-el-Mayun section of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the southern Red Sea. They feed on squid and schooling fishes and can whip their tails at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. Thresher sharks are vulnerable to overfishing, but their remaining population in the Red Sea is unknown.
Sometimes deemed a zebra shark, these tame big fish get their name from the distinct spotted and patchy patterns covering their grey and black bodies. You’ll often find this nocturnal species napping on the bottom of the reef or the sand during the day. They use suction to feed and tend to stick to crustaceans and mollusks as their prey.
They easily startle but can be observed when resting on the ocean floor from afar. To breathe without moving, leopard sharks blow air over their gills while they sleep. This species is most common in the northern Red Sea, around Ras Mohammed, and the Gordon Reef in the Tiran Strait, but you can spot them throughout the region.
Leopard sharks are peaceful reef predators and often populate shallow waters where they give birth to live young. They average less than five feet in length, and their pectoral fins are recognizably triangular. Despite their docile reputation, one unprovoked attack was recorded on a diver in 1955 in California, although no severe injuries were incurred. For the best chance of encountering a sleepy leopard shark, grab your snorkel and hit up the shores of the northern Red Sea from May to October.
Are there a lot of sharks in the Red Sea?
With 44 species already identified as inhabiting this seawater inlet, it’s safe to say that there are a lot of sharks in the Red Sea. Among these species are notorious predators like tiger sharks, hammerheads, and oceanic whitetips, which have all been known to attack human prey, even when unprovoked. But most of the shark species in the Red Sea pose a minor threat to humans. Whale sharks, one of the ocean’s giants, inhabit northern areas of the Red Sea in large populations. They feast on plankton and have never been known to attack humans. But like leopard sharks, thresher sharks, and other timid Red Sea shark species, whale sharks start easily, and a friendly encounter is unlikely.
Are there shark attacks in the Red Sea?
Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit coastal areas and famous diving spots that stretch the 1,200 miles that the Red Sea occupies, but there have only been a handful of recorded shark attacks. Still, Egypt’s vacation hotspots of Sharm El-Sheikh and Marsa Alam have recently garnered negative attention for a rise in shark activity close to their touristy shores. Since 1997, there have been five fatal shark attacks in Egypt’s Red Sea and 20 attacks in total resulting in injury. Still, sharks are considered mainly unthreatening to humans, and unprovoked attacks in the Red Sea remain rare.
Is the Red Sea safe to swim in?
The Red Sea is calm and pleasant, and warm temperatures and a high salt concentration draw tourists in every year. But weather conditions determine safety, and heavy rain, high winds, and low visibility can be dangerous for swimmers, divers, and boats. When it comes to marine life, the Red Sea is also safe. Although with such diverse inhabitants, it’s always advised to avoid interfering with fish and other aquatic ecosystems. The Red Sea is also home to the world’s second most dangerous shark, the Tiger Shark, but sightings are infrequent and unprovoked attacks are unlikely.