George Burgess is the director of the International Shark Attack File, which tracks shark attacks all over the world. If a shark bites a person somewhere on this planet, Burgess and his crew track down all of the information and keep it safe in the File. I tracked Burgess down a couple weeks ago and he graciously agreed to answer some questions. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.
Is there something specific that drew you to your study of sharks and your work with sharks?
I guess, like many people I grew up with a fascination for sharks, having grown up on the coast line. I think most people are excited about sharks on some level. The difference was that I was able to take that fascination with sharks and interest in sharks and turn it into a career.
So you grew up in Florida or?
I was an Air Force brat. My dad was in the Air Force. So we moved around quite a bit, but everywhere we lived was coastal. I lived in Virginia, Hawaii, Italy, New Hampshire, and eventually settled on Long Island, New York. In all cases I was fortunate enough to be able to be near the ocean and obviously my appreciation of things marine grew and I had lots of opportunity to get on the water and in the water.
Do you remember your first shark experience?
Let me think if I do. Up in Long Island we see no shortage of spiny dog fish, which are small sharks that we would catch. They get to about 3 feet or so, those are the first ones we caught. The real experience that might have been a watershed experience is I went down to the Florida Keys with my biology teacher in junior high school and we were able to get out on the water on a small boat in the upper keys to go fishing. As we were fishing, a very large hammerhead, turned out larger than the boat, came idling by and went right under the boat. Clearly anyone who might have seen that would have been fully impressed with the size and grace of that animal and I suspect for me it might have been the thing that clicked in my head that that’s what I wanted to study.
It’s nice that you can remember that. A lot of people don’t have something like that to look back on.
Yeah, it is. And I feel very fortunate in that, not only have I had that kind of thing, but I pretty much had direction my entire life and certainly by high school days I knew I was going to be a biologist and I took courses and did stuff in anticipation of how I was going to move into that career. So I felt very fortunate that I had direction and obviously you need, not just direction, but you have to have passion. And I’ve had no shortage of that over the years. That’s what I tell my students, if they want to be a biologist, they’ve got to have that passion.
Can you explain your process for confirming and documenting a shark attack for the International Shark Attack File?
The thing is that shark attacks, of course, occur on a world wide basis. No two attacks are exactly the same and obviously we can’t be everywhere. So we need the cooperation of collaborators around the world who are willing to check out the details of an attack in their region. So we do have scientific collaborators in many areas of the world and especially in the areas where shark attacks are most common: South Africa, Australia, Hawaii, California, and of course, here in Florida, it’s us. Those are the areas that have the most activity involving sharks and humans and we’ve got collaborators there. In recent years there’s been an upswing of in the number of instances in Brazil and we have great cooperation with scientists in Brazil as well. That said, most attacks do occur in the United States every year. Two thirds of the attacks every year occur in our words, and that’s our yard so we do the alpha investigations on those ourselves. Especially in Florida which has 20-30 incidents each year, in any given year Florida is responsible for 50-60% of the world’s instances. So obviously that keeps us busy at home.
Investigations are done on the basis of timing and available resources. Certainly we want to talk to victims, we want to ask certain questions about their experience. We want to any other witnesses that might have seen or heard what happened. We want to talk to medical personnel that have treated the victims so we can document the medical treatment. We look for the physical environment: what were the tides, water temperature, fish in the area, was there feeding activity, what were the activities of the victims, the color of their clothes, a whole broad section of stuff which we try to piece together from as many sources as possible. In Florida. where we have a lot of what we call hit and run attacks, quick grabs and let goes by medium sized sharks, usually of surfers. Often times we don’t have to go down to find the victim, we talk to them by phone or by email. We get photographs of the wounds so we don’t actually have to make a site visit on all of them. Of course if there’s serious wounds or the occasional death, we’ll be on site and working hard to get all the available information and serve as an interpreter of that information for the local media and so forth so at least there’s some level of knowledge and consistency in what’s being said.
In other parts of the world investigators may do the same thing and then forward their reports to us. And we’re in constant communication thanks to the wonders of email so when something happens in a given area we’re bound to hear about it through the press. We can get on news sites and are and regularly get information from all over the world. And if we don’t have somebody who is already there who is looking at that situation, we try to get somebody to do that for us if they can. If not we try to do it long distance, but it’s always more effective if you have someone on the ground who is from the area. But sometimes you have no choice but to do long distance investigations so we work with police, emergency care personnel, doctors, beach safety personnel and so forth around the world in trying to get information on each and every instance.
You mentioned email a second ago. How long have you been running the file and how much easier is it to do now than it would have been to do 20 years ago?
Oh, so much easier. The File’s origin occurred in the late 1950s, I think it’s 1958. Take a look at our website, we got the whole history spelled out there and I don’t want to screw up any dates. It originally was at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It made a short stay down at the Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, where it was analyzed by a Navy physician. Then it moved to the University of Rhode Island for a period of 1968 to about 1988. Then it moved here and we’ve had it since then. The period, obviously, since it’s been here, has been the period of greatest growth. We’ve been able to put some resources into development of the file and developed of this very nice network of people who can help us out worldwide and they’re collaborators with us. And obviously in recent years, there’s been more shark attack incidents on humans, not only here in Florida and the US, but worldwide. Simply because the human population continues to grow and with that comes concurrent increases in the utilization of waters and that increases the chance of interaction with sharks. This has been a period over these last 20 to 30 years where we’ve had a great increase in the number of incidences and obviously that keeps us very busy.
Part 2 posted tomorrow.