Karim Mostafa tells us about how the great animals' reputation is the cause of its population's demise.
25-year-old Karim Mostafa returned home from work one day with a profound urge to dive with the world’s most feared sea creature, the great white shark. Before he knew it, Mostafa found himself in South Africa sitting anxiously on the edge of a vessel with the Jaws theme song playing relentlessly in the back of his mind. Perhaps his whole life had led up to this moment and this dive would in fact, be his last. Cause of death: fear of the great white. All that aside, down an apprehensive Mostafa went, and up he came filled with passion, excitement, and an ineffable urge to learn everything there is to know about his newly found love for the great white shark. “It was perfect, it’s exactly the opposite of what you imagine,” confesses Mostafa, who's now probably the only Egyptian shark conservationist in South Africa.
When the marine biologist told me that three out of the five sharks I just dived with would be killed, I realised that change was needed to alter this harsh reality.
Contrary to popular belief, sharks are indispensable to the ocean’s ecosystem, yet often we find ourselves inclined to believe that we’d rather an ocean in which they didn’t exist; we have an ingrained fear towards them. We grew up believing that if a shark sees you in the water, you’re as good as dead. Pop culture thrived on this idea also, and movies like Jaws appeared in the 70s painting sharks as the menaces of the ocean. According to Mostafa, however, who has now been a shark conservationist for four years in South Africa’s Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT), sharks are the victims here. They're being killed off for commercial reasons such as providing luxurious fin soup on Asian menus, and providing certain oils in make up products. But one of the main reasons it is happening is fear.
“Last year, can you tell me how many people all over the world went swimming? Billions. And out of 400 different types of sharks, how many deadly accidents happened? Ten. Now look at it the other way around. That same year, how many sharks were killed? 100 million! In other words more than the entire population of Egypt were killed in just one year,” Mostafa explains to us. He also adds that the increase in the seal population is a direct result of shark killing because seals are often their meal of choice. Therefore seals have been consuming more fish, and thus affecting the fishing industry.
His past life aside, Mostafa’s new life was now dedicated to dipping into the sea from time to time with those who feared the mesmerising creature in a bid to change their perceptions on sharks.
Now of course if you’re alone, and you see a shark while swimming peacefully in Sahel or on any coast of Egypt just remember that sharks see you as the threat, and that they don’t actually like the taste of humans because we’re just not juicy enough for them. “If you see a shark, the best advice I can give you is to get out of the water. If you can’t, here’s what I recommend,” explains Mostafa, ”Stay calm, keep an eye on it, if it’s swimming past you there’s no need to worry at all, if it’s circling you then try to make yourself as small as possible by grabbing your knees. The shark will most probably ignore you. Should it still be curious, make yourself big again by spreading your arms and legs in a star shape to scare it off. Then you are free to go.”
Having worked closely with many people to eliminate their deep-rooted shark fears, Mostafa himself has also been involved in animal welfare for most of his life and has had an obsession with sharks for as long as he can remember. “The more I studied sharks, the more my admiration towards this misunderstood creature grew,” Mostafa tells us, “They are the lions of the ocean… Each shark has a very distinctive personality and behaviour, which I find remarkable.” From the Bahamas to Singapore and all the way to Somalia, he has travelled the world to dive with tiger sharks, whale sharks, black tips, and of course, great whites. Our sharkster has worked extensively with with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust to educate the public about the importance of shark conservation. He has also worked with marine biologists in tagging sharks, gathering data, and learning more about their long-debated lifestyle habits.
Nicole, a female great white was tagged in South Africa and she has migrated all the way to Australia and back in about nine months!
However, all of this work in tagging and interfering with the natural order of marine life is not without probing an ethical dilemma: is shark tagging physically harmful and does it really impede on the ability for the shark to swim afterwards? “Tagging sharks is very immaculate work. One needs to know how to do it without being invasive to the animal,” Mostafa describes intricately, “to place the tag with a pole right below the dorsal fin in the white muscle area. One centimetre too high and you can damage its fin, one centimetre too low and you can hit the main artery injuring the shark.” When done right, tagging a shark can let us in on the reproductive habits of great whites for example, and give us a clear idea on who migrates where. It is worth noting the the DICT use the least invasive methods to tag the sharks they monitor.
“Nicole, a female great white was tagged in South Africa and she has migrated all the way to Australia and back in about nine months!” explains Mostafa excitedly, “We now know that males usually migrate up and down alongside coast lines as opposed to females who are much more adventurous. They go further up and down but also deeper into the oceans. So yes, I believe tagging is essential.” So perhaps battling the storms of the ocean, fighting the blistering cold, and overcoming the ethical dilemma is worth it for our Egyptian shark-meister because without accurate documented data and without understanding how sharks function, protecting them is near impossible.
When it comes to Egypt, Mostafa hopes that fishermen become active participants in understanding the importance of sharks in Egypt’s ocean ecology. “I have personally witnessed the brutal killings of sharks, where fishermen refused to understand the reasons for freeing sharks back into the water,” says a distressed Mostafa. "Remember when the Whale appeared in Marina? People threw stones at it!" Egypt can be considered geographically fortunate with both the Mediterranean and the Red seas surrounding us; sharks are mostly vibrant around the east coast. ”Marine experts in Egypt need to be on top of the matter. South Africa is a great example. They started protecting great whites in 1991 and they understood that there is more money to make through ecotourism and through protecting the animal rather than killing it,” Mostafa advises.
Seeing a shark in the ocean is a scary thing that I can relate to. But I promise you an ocean without sharks, now that’s much scarier!
Naturally, we asked the sharkaholic on the best places to go shark diving in Egypt. “Marsa Alam… most of the people I’ve met in the shark industry have been there and spoken wonders of it,” he tells us. However, if you want to go shark diving with great whites, there are only three places in the world where you can do so: South Australia, Mexico, and the capital of great white sharks South Africa.
For Mostafa, being able to truly make a difference in the livelihood of sharks, particularly in Egypt, would mean for the public to become properly educated about their characteristics. “You are more likely to die from a coconut falling on your head than a shark attack. I have personally helped many people get over their fears. When seeing sharks first hand in their natural habitat, you see that they could not care less about your presence; they swim along peacefully being the majestic creatures they are. I strongly urge people to get outside their comfort zones,” explains to us about the traits of sharks, “seeing a shark in the ocean is a scary thing that I can relate to. But I promise you an ocean without sharks, now that’s much scarier!”
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