Shark Week: Interview With Shark Expert George Burgess Part 2

Continuing right where we left off yesterday with our interview with George Burgess, 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.

It seems like the number of unprovoked shark attacks is very low relative to the number of people who spend time in the water.

Boy, that’s true.

So how scared should someone really be about spending time in the ocean?

I think that if one is worried about being scared or that sort of thing, they ought to be more scared about the ride to the beach in their vehicle. There’s certainly a much greater danger in that than in the other. That said, any time we enter the sea, we need to remember that it’s a wilderness experience. We’re entering an alien environment, one that we’re not pre-adapted for and one that can, occasionally, cause us some harm. Whether it be jelly fish, or barracudas, or stinging corals, or whatever it is, the fact of the matter is that there some things out there that can do us damage and occasionally do. So we need to go out there with respect, we need to go out there with the understanding that we’re not a member of that environment, we’re not pre-adapted for swimming, we don’t have gills. And in fact, we’re pretty lousy when it comes to being participants in the water by nature of our activity.

We’re at a huge disadvantage in the water and just like we show caution when we go on other wilderness experiences, whether it be hiking in the Rockies and remembering that there are mountain lions and bears or taking a tourist trip to the Serengeti Plain and understanding that there are lions and cheetahs and elephants and other things that can do us damage, we need to do the same thing of course with the sea and know that we have to exercise some caution. That said, the sea is a pretty forgiving space and most people enter the sea don’t even think about it at all and don’t pay a price. It’s a pretty darn safe recreational activity. When you consider we’ve been averaging 4 deaths per year worldwide in all areas, that’s such a ridiculously low figure compared to other risks associated with aquatic recreation or any other recreational activities you probably put that at the bottom of the page if you make a table of dangerous recreational activities. In any case, one shouldn’t be really worried about this kind of thing, but one should have respect.

I have one more questions and then I have a bunch of questions submitted by readers. Do you have a specific mindset when you go out on the water as far as getting ready to work. Is there something that you do to prepare yourself to focus on sharks or focus on the water?

Well, we’ve been doing the shark attack part for decades now and we know the general questions we would like to ask people. We have an attack questionnaire form that we ask victims to fill out and that’s on our website. And quite frankly, we’ve been answering questions like yours for a long time so we pretty much know the gist of the kind of concerns people have. One of our big things is to try to prepare people for the understanding that shark attack is a minor problem and that the real problem with sharks is that we’re killing way too many of them and that they’re in great decline and in need of conservation management. Most people don’t necessarily understand that dichotomy, nor do they appreciate it so we spend a fair amount of time trying to get that distinction through to people. Do we have to give ourselves a pep talk or something? Nah. The only time you gotta give a pep talk to yourself is when you’re dealing with a fatality. Obviously, despite the fact that they’re very rare and statistically happen very uncommonly, they are real people that died and they have real families and they have real stories and so the loss of the unfortunate statistical person isn’t any less hurtful than any other. So one does by necessity in those cases have to sort of put on a different face and have a different attitude than the normal scientific one. Particularly if you get involved with autopsies, it’s a moving experience to deal with a dead person, obviously.

So these are questions that are submitted by readers. Besides humans, what would you say is the biggest enemy to sharks?

Besides humans… Other sharks. Some sharks eat other sharks and that would be the major predator of sharks other than a hook and a line?

If someone is swimming and sees a shark, what’s the best thing to do?

Well, it’s pretty obvious now to get out of the water. And it seems obvious, but a lot of people don’t, especially surfers who are very much glued to their activity and more prone to take risks. But certainly get out of the water as fast you can. If you can’t get out of the water, find yourself some sort of physical barrier that you can use to get yourself against. A pylon, a reef, a sandbar or something that cuts down the angle of that the shark can get at you. If you’re physically under attack, literally being attacked, certainly fight like mad, don’t be passive. If I was being grabbed I would try to gouge the eyes or the gill openings, both of which are sensitive areas in a shark, as aggressively as possible.

What is the smallest shark?

Smallest shark is a little lantern shark. Coincidentally a species I described with my colleague Stuart Springer, it’s a little lantern shark from off the northern coast of South America and it reaches sexual maturity at well under a foot.

How is it possible for aquariums to keep sharks in tanks with other fish?

Not all sharks are good aquarium fishes and aquarists know that. So there are certain species that they put in and some they avoid. Of those that they do put in the community tank, they feed them well. The idea is to try to keep them well fed by giving them the food you want consumed rather than them having them make their choices of food and having them eat the other aquarium fish. As a consequence, you’ll see that in many aquaria the sharks seem to be over fed, they’re a little pudgy and so forth. This is the dynamic that aquarists have to work with. To feed them enough to keep them uninterested in his neighbors without turning them into doughballs.

Sharks have a legendary sense of smell. At what distance can sharks really smell blood in the water?

They can smell blood in the water, or other things, 100 meters away. In fact, they can smell a drop in an Olympic sized swimming pool. So their sense of smell is very good and it goes for quite a distance.

Can you talk about some times that you’ve been scared of a shark?

One time I was scared with shark was for something I did and it was my fault. I was in the Bahamas with a friend and I jumped into the water in what appeared to be a little path, a highway where small lemon sharks were cruising, going back and forth. I jumped in to see what would happen if they encountered me and as expected they weren’t happy and they started swimming circles around me. But they were little sharks and there was no concern. What I hadn’t counted on was there was another, bigger lemon shark a bit off-shore, and attracted presumably by the irregular swimming activity of the little lemons came dashing in find out what was going on and of course I was there. That’s the only time I’ve been essentially charged by a shark and it got close enough and the path was such that it didn’t look like it was going to swerve off. So I went aggressively at the shark, I got in the water and swam at it and basically swung at it. When I got aggressive it swerved off and left and of course I immediately got out of the water.

Have you ever been bit by a shark?

I’ve been bit many times, but not in the water. Shark teeth are very sharp, so any time you’re cleaning a jaw or reaching into a specimen tank you’re almost assured of getting bit by a shark’s teeth. So I’ve left a lot of blood on land, but not in the water.

What’s the weirdest shark story you’ve ever experienced?

Well, one of the best stories I would guess was a 3 sharks on one hook experience. While fishing in North Carolina one time, using a long line, which is a method scientists use to catch sharks to do biological studies, we caught a dogfish shark on the hook, which was then eaten by a black tip shark, and then a larger shark, a bull shark, grabbed the black tip shark. So when we pulled the bull shark in lo and behold, we found 2 other sharks that had been on the same hook. We caught 3 sharks on one hook.

Hmm. Lucky.

[Silence]

Have any questions for me?

No, I think we’re cool and if there’s anything you need, let me know.

Do you have a comment on Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus?

Who cares?

Shark Week: Interview With Shark Expert George Burgess Part 2

0 thoughts on “Shark Week: Interview With Shark Expert George Burgess Part 2

  1. Greg says:

    I had an observation from watching shark week on discovery. I can’t help but wonder if the reason sharks seldomly eat humans is due to the fact our bones (being land animals) are much stronger than fishes and meat on our bones must be stripped from the bones whereas the shark can only eat its food in large chunks bones and all. One experiment I watched where some scientists took a fake leg with a fake human bones in it into a mechanical shark’s mouth the mechanical shark could not break the bone with out making a run at the leg. So, chomping on the leg without making a run at it would be problematic for the shark and the shark would really need to strip flesh from the bone the way a lion does but the shark has no hands or legs or paws to hold down its prey to strip the meat. The shark knowing the difficulty in eating land animals (such as us) moves back to eating marine life with its naturally less dense bones where the shark can thrash and tear off chunks of these animals with relative ease.

    Like

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