George Burgess and the International Shark Attack File perform CSI-level investigations into gruesome underwater encounters.
By Colleen Sharkey
If you find yourself face to face with a shark or, perhaps more accurately, leg to mouth, call George Burgess. Well, maybe call an ambulance first but then definitely contact Burgess and his International Shark Attack File (ISAF) colleagues — the CSI of shark attacks — with all of the gory details. Chances are you will live to tell the tale and Burgess and company want to record all incidents (even if a shark just bumps your surfboard) with the File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The ISAF contains reports of more than 5,000 incidents, including evidence of shark attacks from as long ago as the mid-1500s. Some data have no living corroborators, so they are culled from newspaper clippings, with as much information as possible being added to this vast database. Many of the entries, however, are completed by the victims themselves, who are asked to fill out an eight-page questionnaire. The survey asks meticulous questions about water conditions, victim activity and, most importantly, the shark’s modus operandi.
The earliest iteration ISAF was prompted by the U.S. Navy’s quest for an effective shark repellent after numerous downed servicemen were attacked during World War II. A group of shark researchers quickly accumulated more than 1,000 attack reports. The data, however, were proving hard to analyze without sophisticated computer programs. In 1968, the Navy ended its search for a solution and, according to Burgess, with good reason. “Ivory soap is just as good a repellent as anything,” he explains. “Sharks don’t like surfactants. You could put any number of chemicals in a shark’s face and it’ll go away. The problem is, you’d have to have a continual high concentration [of the substance] in the water — like people out on a barge continually pumping the water full of chemicals — and that’s impossible [in a real-world situation]. You’re never really going to solve the problem using that route.” At that point, the ISAF moved away from seeking a preventive tool and evolved into a rich resource for worldwide research and conservation.
Certainly heightened by the popularity of Jaws, the culture of shark fear causes many to think that a meeting with a large one means certain death, but the overwhelming majority of incidents are survivable and even relatively minor. On average, you have a one in 11.5 million chance of dying in a shark attack, according to ISAF. Statistically, you have a far better chance of being hit by lightning; but lightning doesn’t come with a suspenseful John Williams-penned theme or an ominous dorsal fin. Years of research, completed by people such as Burgess and his team, have led ichthyologists and others who study the elasmobranch order (sharks, skates and rays) to see that white sharks are curious hunters who indulge in exploratory bites before deciding to go in for the kill. This typically allows for the shark’s victim to bleed out so the shark doesn’t have to do as much work for his meal. This so-called hit-and-run tactic helps conserve energy, which is of utmost importance since food sources can be scarce. The largest great white sharks are the females and they can be as long as 20′ and weigh up to two tons. Try feeding that on a budget. Due to overfishing and other human intervention, regular food sources aren’t always available so sharks have to snap up whatever is around, even if it is grade-D human meat, a far cry from the blubbery goodness of a young seal. However, whether the shark is attracted by activity on the surface or driven by pure intent to kill, humans certainly appear to sharks as “a big piece of protein worth going after,” Burgess notes. “Great whites are good smellers and tasters. As soon as they have human flesh in their mouth, they can probably tell that it’s not their normal prey. The question is: Does it make a difference to them?”
Sharks and humans are both apex predators, meaning there’s no one above us in our respective food chains. For us, this is thanks to our evolved brains and, for sharks, it’s their muscle power and finely tuned senses. Sharks can detect the presence of blood at the level of parts per billion from miles away. When humans enter the ocean or any environment ruled over by large apex predators, we lose our status as top dog. The documentary Grizzly Man was probably enough to convince most sane people that hanging out with a bunch of grizzly bears is going to ultimately result in one thing: your death. So it seems odd that people will willingly swim with sharks when they wouldn’t necessarily frolic among a pride of lions, but the sea and its inhabitants are powerfully seductive. There are commercial tourist companies that offer cage dives with great whites and one South African man, Mike Rutzen, the so-called Sharkman, literally rides on the backs of great whites with only a small spear gun as protection. But even someone who is terrible at math can figure out that the more time one spends in the ocean, the higher the chances of being attacked. “We, as humans, are invaders of their environment. We are interlopers — we don’t belong there,” Burgess reminds. “We aren’t owed the right of 100 percent safety, just as we aren’t guaranteed this when we go camping or on safari. These are wilderness activities and we have to accept the risk of this. Happily for us, sharks aren’t a major concern. Generally fewer than five humans per year are killed and that’s nothing compared to the billions of hours we spend in the water.”
Still, great whites retain their reputation of being man-eating brutes, despite massive evidence to the contrary. “Sharks don’t infest waters, they live in them,” Burgess says. “The negative connotation is still there. Those kinds of things are still in the mindset of people. We have a long way to go to convince people that sharks are a natural part of the environment and that they have their place.” The idea of a rogue shark — one that repeatedly attacks humans with seemingly endless bloodlust — first entered into the American consciousness during the frightening attacks in the summer of 1916, gruesomely chronicled in Michael Capuzzo’s “Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in An Age of Innocence.” That summer, on the East Coast, five people were attacked by a shark or sharks in the span of 12 days. Only one survived. The last three victims were attacked in Matawan Creek near the inland New Jersey town of Matawan, leading some to believe that the attacker was not a great white but a bull shark, as they can live in brackish or even freshwater. This real-life horror story inspired Peter Benchley to write his bestselling novel “Jaws.”
The great white isn’t even an aggressive species, relatively speaking, but “it is the largest of the carnivorous sharks and the consequences [of an attack] can be severe,” Burgess says. “Far more people survive than die in white shark attacks.” Still, we are just more familiar with them because they come close to shore and carry an intimidating Hollywood legacy. Burgess names the bull shark, the mako and the oceanic whitetip as three of the most aggressive shark species. Attacks on humans committed by oceanic whitetips and makos are rare because they are deep-water fish, swimming and hunting in the open ocean, although expanded tourism is creeping in on their territory. The adaptable bull shark is often found at the mouths of rivers and in shallow water. “Once a bull shark starts an attack, it stays,” Burgess says. “They have literally been known to chase humans out of the water; they have beached themselves in pursuits. We are more concerned about this kind of animal due to its behavior. It’s not as big as a white shark but it’s much more aggressive.”
Burgess, like most seasoned ichthyologists, never put much stock in the notion of the rogue shark until 2010 when five people were attacked and one of them killed in the Red Sea near a resort town in Egypt, causing officials to close the Sharm el-Sheikh beach. Two oceanic whitetip sharks were hunted down and killed immediately — presumed guilty, convicted and put to death with no real evidence connecting them to the attacks. Burgess was called in to work with local scientists and authorities to try to get to the bottom of these highly unusual attacks.
Ultimately, after intense research, diver surveillance and the review of images, Burgess and the team were able to identify a shark that was involved in at least two of the attacks. Markings on an oceanic whitetip shark as well as evidence that it had been in some of the dive areas confirmed its role in the incidents. As Burgess is quick to point out, any number of factors could have played into the shark’s (or sharks’) bizarre behavior. One of the most likely culprits was the dumping of sheep carcasses into the Red Sea. About a month before the attacks, an Australian commercial boat that was transporting sheep for sacrifice as part of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha dumped the animals overboard that didn’t survive the trip. This free water buffet could very well have changed the sharks’ eating habits, notes Burgess, making them think that whatever was on the surface was an easily acquired meal. “Rogue sharks are certainly not common and we would be badly misrepresenting sharks if we said most attacks were the result of rogues,” Burgess says. Some shark attacks remain mysteries and others take years of poring over evidence to properly solve.
While attacks on humans are certainly terrifying, they’re really nothing compared to what we do to sharks. It’s estimated that tens of millions of sharks (some estimates are as high as 78 million) are killed every year, many solely for their fins, which fulfill the global demand for shark fin soup. In some Asian countries, it is a sign of prestige to be able to afford the expensive delicacy. The work of a handful of nonprofits and shark advocates has brought about bans in some U.S. states and select Asian markets.
As a shark researcher for 40 years, Burgess is particularly sensitive to the precarious fate of these predators but he knows that a measured approach will work best. “If we go into the sea en masse, our footprints are going to be bigger in those places and it affects other animals and plants that call it their home. It’s inevitable that we’re going to make some changes but we should try to do what we can to reduce the changes and ensure the continued existence of the animals.” One thing seems to be certain regarding shark attacks, however, and that is that quick judgments carrying lethal sentences are not the answer — especially when it comes to endangered species. “It’s our choice to go into their world,” Burgess says. “Every time somebody drowns, we don’t shoot the ocean!”
Photos courtesy of The International Shark Attack File/Florida Museum of Natural History/University of Florida