You can still see sharks swimming freely near the Hadera’s power plant, but the area is filthy, unsupervised, and dangerous

Moshe Gilad December 22, 2022

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A group of sharks off Hadera’s coast.Credit: Rami Shllush

ust about 10 meters from me swam a shark. At first, I thought I was hallucinating. It was close to the rocks along the shore, about one and a half meters long with a large fin sticking straight up out of the water, exactly like in the movies.

I was afraid to blink. I stood on the shore and stared, and then pointed at it. Because I was so close and the water was shallow, I saw its whole body, from nose to tail fin.

A moment later, the silhouette disappeared. The entire incident lasted for maybe 10 seconds, probably less. A sense of thrill came over me. The power of the large, wild creature could be felt from a distance. Afterward, I stood at the same spot for another hour, but didn’t see anything.

The beach in Hadera next to the power plant and estuary of the Hadera Stream is a unique place. There are very few places in the world where it is possible to watch sharks swimming so close to the shore without being scared off by people.

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Sharks and smokestacks in Hadera.Credit: Ran Golan

On the day I stood there, a team from one of the foremost TV networks in the world was shooting a documentary about the site. Two photographers dove in black wetsuits, carrying heavy equipment, with production assistants accompanying them in rubber boats and an experienced producer overseeing it all. The episode will be part of a series on the most intriguing wildlife in Asia.

“This is an incredible, world-class nature site,” the producer said. “We came here for eight days of shooting, and we are just astounded.” At the end of the conversation, he asked me not to name the network, “because the competitors can’t know about this show.” Only then did I understand the significance they were attributing to the discovery in Hadera.

This week, like in my earlier visits to the site, I found myself wondering: Is this a fantastic and rare site, or is it the scene of a disaster about to happen? Does it have to be regulated in some way, or should it simply be left for everyone, sharks and human beings, to enjoy it as they see fit? And on top of all that: Is this their last winter with us? Will the transition to using natural gas for energy drive away the sharks?

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shark in the waters off Hadera.Credit: Ran Golan

A quick look around makes it clear that there’s a problem: you can see a rusty fence, garbage on the beach, fishing equipment, empty bags of snacks, Coke bottles, broken folding chairs, the smokestacks of the nearby power plant, and a car that has seemingly burrowed itself into the parking lot. The environs of the Hadera Stream estuary do not quite align with the description “incredible, world-class nature site.”

The sharks are wonderful guests, but the reception accorded them is deplorable. The park adjacent to the estuary is beautiful and well-tended, but the view over the northern bank of the estuary and the rampart of boulders alongside it look atrocious.

I was visiting the site on a calm day earlier this week. On previous visits to the site, I saw motorboats, kayaks, dozens of scuba divers, swimmers with snorkels, and masses of curious onlookers standing on the shore giving suggestions to the sharks.

A shark swims near the beach in Hadera.
A shark swims near the beach in Hadera.Credit: Ran Golan

When I was there, 10 fishermen with fishing rods stood 50 meters away from the inlet where the sharks were swimming. They were trying to catch other fish, but the juxtaposition seemed difficult. In order to reach the boulders on which the fishermen were sitting, I had to traverse a broken gate, a trampled fence and three signs declaring that entry and fishing in the area are both absolutely forbidden.

The sharks in Hadera belong to two main species that are facing global risk of extinction – the dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) and the sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus). They come to the site in the winter months, between November and March.

The phenomenon was first noticed about a decade ago. Research reveals that a shiver (yes, that’s the name for a group of sharks) of about 20 to 30 sharks, both males and females, find their way to the site. The warm water discharged from the Orot Rabin power plant attracts them to something like a spa for sharks. Research into the sharks at the site is being done at full speed.

The edge of Hadera's 'shark beach.'
The edge of Hadera’s ‘shark beach.’Credit: Rami Shllush

The chaos on the Hadera coastline is the combination of several factors that come together to create an elaborate mishmash. Naturally, large and intriguing animals found only a few meters from the coastline will attract a large audience. Curious visitors make their way over in boats, by swimming, or by diving. They come with drones, binoculars and cameras.

The resulting situation is dangerous for the sharks, and could also be dangerous to those watching them. The currents near the power station are strong and unpredictable. The behavior of the sharks is also unpredictable. In addition, experts are sounding the alarm about the pressure introduced by fishing in the area. There have been cases in which sharks have been caught, either unintentionally or illegally.

Nothing new in Hadera

Five years ago, I wrote an article about the winter vacation taken by the sharks in Hadera. The individuals I interviewed for that article agreed that an immediate solution had to be found to regulate activity at the site.

Five years have passed since then, and very little has changed at the site. The only noteworthy difference is that a small lot has been paved across from the inlet, which occasionally earns the complimentary sobriquet “observation deck.” It is far from the waterline, is not elevated, and cannot in any way fulfill this challenging task. It is perfect for watching sunsets, but not sharks.

Garbage strewn near the observation point.
Garbage strewn near the observation point.Credit: Rami Shllush

Another change is the plan to run the power plant using natural gas instead of coal. The revised date for operating the gas turbines in Hadera is the end of 2023. If and when that change comes into effect, the water temperature at the site will likely drop by several degrees. Such a situation may lead the sharks to opt for another, warmer locale.

Numerous official authorities are involved in management of the site: the Hadera Municipality, the Nature and Parks Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry, and the national power company. Other parties with an interest in the site are academic researchers from the University of Haifa and members of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, who have invested a great deal of effort and proposed solutions for the issue.

Ateret Shabtay, a marine ecologist with the SPNI, laid out in a conversation this week the principles by which the well-being of sharks and humans could be assured within this limited space, as proposed by a team that she headed.

The proposal is based on a seasonal arrangement that would be enforced during the months when the sharks gather. There would be a seasonal declaration of the Hadera coastline as a protected nature site. Science-based management, legal authority for management and effective supervisory and enforcement capabilities would also be established.

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Credit: Rami Shllush

The SPNI’s recommendations for management of the area include a seasonal ban on fishing (both from the sea and from the coast), which would ensure protection of the sharks and protection of the visiting public from becoming entangled in fishing equipment.

In addition, it suggests that zoning be done to regulate human activity in the area, ensure that divers are kept away from the dangerous current of cooling water, and ensure that the overlap between the various leisure activities be regulated.

Shabtay thinks a zone within the water should be defined for controlled observation, in which visits by the public – divers, snorkelers, rowers – would be regulated, based on the hour of the day and number of people.

The code of behavior would be defined by the parks authority. Motorboating would be allowed only at a distance of greater than 300 meters from the coastline, and a shark observation area would be established at an attractive spot on the coastline.

In our conversation, Shabtay agreed that the existing observation deck was unsuitable and that it does not allow the public to see the sharks. She said the people who drafted the document calling regulation of activity in the area had found themselves at a dead end in recent months. The pressure that they have exerted on other bodies to take action has not been effective so far, she said.

The site where the sharks gather.
The site where the sharks gather.Credit: Ran Golan

“Do I have anything new to tell you?” Shabtay said at the start of our conversation. “As far as I understand, nothing is happening now vis-à-vis regulation of the site. We think it is important to establish a seasonal regulation arrangement there.

“The sharks are a protected species and it is important to protect them. Spectators from the water have to do so in a regulated and organized way. It is dangerous, and they disturb the sharks. We would want there to be a clear definition of areas of activity.

“Additionally, a good observation deck is needed, one that is closer to the sea. The Nature and Parks Authority needs to deal with that because sharks are a protected asset of value, and only the parks authority has the tools to deal with it.”

In your proposal, why are you allowing the continuation of diving and swimming at the site, next to sharks?

“The examples we’ve seen around the world prove that an encounter with sharks encourages spectators to protect them. There is high value to shark tourism. This is ecological tourism that evokes sympathy and promotes nature preservation. Anyone seeking the sharks in Hadera will understand the importance of protecting sharks all over the world. It’s important to bear in mind that a majority of large shark species are now in danger of extinction.”

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A shark in the waters of Hadera.Credit: Ran Golan

Will the upcoming change at the power station, with coal no longer being used, affect the site?

“That is an excuse, and there are no grounds to support it. At the moment, the sharks are there and they need to be protected. We therefore proposed clear and immediate actions to be taken to protect them.”

The party’s over

Yigael Ben Ari, director of the parks authority’s marine division, called the site in Hadera a “fantastic question.” “Right here, along our very own coastline, there is a large wild animal that is so close you could touch it,” he said.

“It is incredible and it is unique. Everyone is attracted to it, but it is dangerous. My job is to protect the sharks, and for that purpose we have to institute separation and distancing. Right now, it seems to me as if we are heading for disaster. There is high risk there, and I don’t want a catastrophe to occur, heaven forbid.”

What’s the solution?

‘I want a good observation deck to be built, and to allow only researchers to go into the water there. I receive infinite requests from interested parties, but I am opposed to the festival that is taking place there and I tell everyone to keep their distance. This is a wild animal that needs to live with minimal human contact. I am afraid that this will not end well, and I therefore unequivocally advise not to go into the water there.”

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A shark swims off Hadera’s coast.Credit: Ran Golan

Who should be making the decisions?

“The sovereign authority is the Hadera Municipality, and they have problems in various areas. The issue and the site are complex. The close proximity to the power station makes everything complicated.

“Another complication is that it is not certain how long the phenomenon will continue to exist, because the power station is moving over to generating electricity with natural gas, and the water will presumably not maintain the same temperature. If the water cools, the sharks might not come to the site at all.”

Diver Ran Golan, who owns the diving company Out of the Blu, has known about the site for seven years. He has dived in the Hadera Stream estuary hundreds of times, and still gets enthusiastic each time. He loves the sharks, with their seasonal convocation, and he loves the sights that unfold before his eyes on every dive.

This week, for the first time, he sounded practically despondent. Until 2019, Golan led guided dives at the site. He no longer engages in any commercial activity there; now he only accompanies researchers and media crews. He says that when it comes to tourism, it is impossible to work there. Nevertheless, he continues to dive on the site practically every day, to experience an encounter with the sharks.

“Trying to work in Hadera is like tipping at windmills,” he said. “The parks authority pays no attention to the coastline. Since they don’t have authority there, they are afraid of getting into trouble. The marine inspectors go there sporadically. All of the long-winded talk about the site’s tourism development amounted to nothing more than the observation point, which was built the way it was built, and you can see how it looks.

“In the meantime, the Hadera Municipality decided that swimming with the sharks is dangerous, so it is forbidden to go into the water, but they don’t enforce it for jet skis, boats, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and so on.

“Recently, city inspectors have been coming to the coastline and giving tickets to divers. I consider this bizarre; the whole situation is unclear. The inspectors say that diving is forbidden at any beach unless it is declared as a diving zone. They ignore the fact that diving is not swimming.”

What should happen there?

“I would like for someone to make it clear once and for all what is permitted and what is forbidden at our beaches. Diving and other activities with the sharks could be wonderful and welcome. It has to be done in a professional way, but chaos always reigns here. The municipality has invited bids to build a diving center on the site, which I of course applied to, but then they withdrew it a short time later. I’d give anything to understand and to know what needs to happen there.”

The good news

Shark fans may be extremely frustrated with the situation in Hadera, but academic researchers are actually quite pleased. Aviad Scheinin, director of the Apex Marine Predators Lab at the University of Haifa, has been studying the sharks at the Hadera site for the past seven years.

He describes the work as like running a marathon. This week, Scheinin said the prolonged research, conducted along with Eyal Bigal, is coming to fruition, yielding new and fascinating insights.

“The knowledge that we now have about sharks is different,” Scheinin said. “You have to bear in mind that the site is about to change dramatically because of the transition to using natural gas instead of coal at the power station. We believe that this will bring about a change in the behavior of the sharks.

Sharks swim near the beach in Hadera.
Sharks swim near the beach in Hadera.Credit: Ran Golan

“Our insights are making it clear that there is a certain dominance there of males of the sandbar species and of female dusky sharks. But the males see higher repeated visits every year. Whereas the female dusky sharks do not return for a year after their first visit. They ‘skip’ at least one year, but apparently even more than that.

“The research is still in its infancy, and the few studies we have conducted indicate that the females that we have managed to track were in their early stages of pregnancy,” he said. “Keep in mind that the pregnancy of female sharks continues for two years. All of the sharks that we encounter in the area are adults. The warm water is the obvious reason for their arrival at the site.

“The sharks come for four to five days. During this time, their body temperature rises, and then they leave for a few days and come back for additional similar time intervals. As soon as they warm up, they leave.

“Our assumption is that once they warm up, they are more energetic and go out to the open sea, evidently to look for prey, and then they have an advantage, thanks to the warmth that they have accumulated. And then they return later on.

“Among females, there are apparently other motivations. We think pregnancy among sharks is demanding. The mother nourishes her embryos through something that is similar to a placenta.

“Which is why it is in the female’s interest to shorten the duration of the pregnancy, and there are studies that show that at higher temperatures, the pregnancy is shorter. Their gestational cycle is three to four years long, which means that they will come back to Hadera only three years after the first visit.

“Our current objective is to place a fin-mounted camera that documents what the shark sees. With its help, we will understand whether they are eating in Hadera. We are not seeing eating behavior there. We are interested in understanding how all of this might change if the temperature of the water drops.”

What should happen at the site?

“This is an incredible site, on an international scale. There’s no nature there, and it is not natural, but it is possible to experience an encounter with sharks there in a unique way that you don’t find anywhere else in the Mediterranean Sea, and only in a few places in the world. The site is relatively dangerous, mainly due to the currents.

“Good regulation is needed in order to manage it optimally. That is a challenging thing in such an environment, but because the site is about to change in the year to come, with the termination of use of coal, I don’t think there is any point in investing in it. I doubt whether it could become a tourism site.”

Will the sharks leave it once the temperature drops?

“I don’t know how to answer that question. I assume that behavioral changes will occur, but not necessarily abandonment. Maybe they will simply move over to the power station in Ashkelon. There’s warm water there, too.”

The Israel Electric Corporation meanwhile said that “the site is not within the territory of the power station, and given that fact, the corporation does not have plans for it.”

The Hadera Municipality said in response to a request for comment that in the course of this season, guided tours are being held in the park on the subject of the sharks, and there is an information stand with information accessible on the weekends.

The municipality has issued guidelines outlining “best practice for shark observation” as part of a project it initiated called “Sharks in the Current.” The project aims to “regulate the site for observing sharks above and below the water in a way that would avoid damage, but would enable a significant and rare encounter between the public and marine wildlife.”

The text includes an ethical code for observing sharks meant for spectators from the coastline, divers and boaters. City representatives also acknowledged in the course of conversations that the observation deck does not enable people to see sharks and that maintaining cleanliness of the site has been a problem.