Michael Capuzzo talks
to George Burgess, ichthyologist, shark biologist and Coordinator
of Museum Operations of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the
University of Florida in Gainesville.
Michael Capuzzo: What intrigued you about the 1916 shark attacks
to want to personally investigate the sites of the five attacks and
four killings in New Jersey?
George Burgess: A couple of things. I spent a good part of
my youth on Long Island, not too far from the sites of the attacks
and always have been fascinated with the proximity of the attacks
and the fact that I engaged in the same activities as the young victoms
when they were attacked. And, of course, this series of attacks, apparently
by a single shark, is pretty much a unique event scientifically.
MC: How could some scientists in 1916 actually believe that
sharks couldn't hurt a man? Or fishermen then suspect a sea turtle
or swordfish or killer whale instead? Weren't centuries of seafarers'
attacks well-known by anecdote or legend?
GB: Scientists, like other folks, are prone to the mores, theories
and opinions of society. In instances where there have not been studies
or where little corroborative evidence is available, the most agreeable
notion is to be conservative. In an era when "man conquers the earth"
was a prevailing mindset, the notion that a beast would dare to attack
and kill a human at the very foot of progressive western civilization
- Philadelphia and New York - must have seemed ridiculous to many
folks. And the consequences of declaring a beach emergency, with the
resultant loss of revenue to the shore communities, surely was not
lost on the scientists passing judgement on these events (much as
it does today!). Then, as now, attribution of an attack to another
animal certainly results in lower public outcry than when the word
"shark" is uttered, allowing beaches to remain open and dollars in
MC: The actions of the "Jersey Man-Eater" will forever remain
a mystery, but scientists at the turn of the century believed the
attacks were caused by a single great white -- do you believe their
theory has held up over time as the most plausible.
GB: The species involved has always been doubtful and likely
will continue to generate spirited debate. Those who know sharks pretty
much agree that two species, the white and bull sharks, are the most-likely
suspects. The bull draws a lot of votes because the location, Mattawan
Creek, suggests brackish or fresh waters, a habitat that bulls frequent
and whites avoid. However, our examination of the site reveals that
the size of the "creek," its depth, and salinity regime were closer
to a marine embayment and that a smallish white clearly could have
wandered into the area. Since an appropriate sized white shark with
human remains in its stomach was captured nearby shortly after the
attacks (and no further attacks occurred), it seems likely that this
was the attacker involved in at least the Mattawan attacks. The temporal
and geographical sequence of attacks also suggests that earlier attacks
may have involved the same shark.
MC: What surprised you the most as you explored the 1916 shark
GB: The visit to Mattawan Creek really opened my eyes. The
"creek" was much larger and the likely salinity regime much saltier
than I had imagined. Walking along the shore sure made me think about
how startling it must have been to see a shark in these waters.
MC: What are the true risks of shark attack for a beach swimmer?
GB: Slim to none for most areas of the world, serious enough
to be of concern in other areas. Off the northeastern coast of the
United States, where Close To Shore is set, shark attack is a once
every few decades event.
MC: Are there places in the world you wouldn't swim and would
advise others not to? Or certain times of year to avoid certain beaches?
GB: In most tropical areas sharks are normal elements of the
inshore fauna and must be respected. In certain coolwater areas with
high human aquatic utilization, such as the West Coast of the United
States, the southern part of Australia, the southern tip of Africa,
and Japan, white sharks present a real risk. Generally the best way
to learn of the relative danger in an area is to talk to knowledgeable
locals. One also can vist the ISAF web site at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/ISAF/ISAF.htm
to view maps showing attack locations.
MC: Can swimmers reduce the risk of shark attack by paying
attention to swimsuit color, tanning, jewelry, who or what they swim
with (such as a dog)?
GB: One can reduce the already low risk of encountering a shark
by not wearing shiny jewelry, which catches light from the sun much
like scales on a fish. Bright clothing and uneven tanning (leaving
light patches of skin) are likely easily seen by sharks underwater.
Dogs (and many humans!) are not graceful swimmers - their splashing
is highly attractive to sharks.
MC: Do you advise menstruating women not to swim in the ocean
because of the possibility of attracting sharks?
GB: Any bodily fluid probably is attractive to sharks. Blood,
in any form, may be at the top of the list. The sharks' ability to
detect even minute amounts of blood and scents of other organic material
is amazing. Menstrual blood almost certainly can be detected by a
shark, and I'm sure urine can be as well. Do we have positive evidence
that it is a factor in shark attack? No, and until some menstruating
and non-menstruating divers volunteer to take part in a controlled
test we'll never prove it. In my opinion it likely is attractive to
sharks in certain situations. Certainly menstruating women are attractive
to such smell-oriented animals as dogs. Sharks, with their extreme
olfaction abilities, surely are capable of detecting at similar low
levels. Does that mean a menstruating woman is setting herself up?
No, but if one is attempting to maximize reduction of risks it is
one thing that can be avoided. My advise? Don't worry about it. Lots
of women safely dive while menstruating. Although we haven't got solid
scientific data on the subject, so far we've haven't seen any obvious
pattern of increased attacks on menstruating women.
MC: Is it possible to be well informed about shark attack risk,
aware of the gruesome history, yet have a healthy and relaxed attitude
about the pleasures of ocean swimming? How do you accomplish this?
What does a parent tell a child who has seen Jaws or read Close
to Shore to allow them to relax and love the sea?
GB: Certainly. When we engage in any recreational activity,
we accept that there are risks involved. Aquatic recreation has shortcomings
as well. Shark attack is simply one of many risks that one takes when
entering the sea, others being drowning, spinal injuries, lacerations,
jellyfish stings, stingray spinning, etc. When compared to these risks
- and those involving land-based recreation - we find that shark attack
is, on a per capita basis, very low indeed. However, we tend to hear
more about shark attack than other types of injuries because it makes
a great story in the media. So, be aware that shark attacks can and
occasionally do occur, try to minimize the risk by using common sense,
and enjoy the sea. Most of the time it is a beautiful and safe place
MC: Why is shark attack increasing worldwide?
GB: Actual numbers of shark attacks in general have been on
the rise worldwide, a reflection of human population growth and and
consequent increases in hours spent on aquatic recreation see http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Sharks/statistics/pop.htm
for some factual verification], environmental and sociological factors.
In fact, all such factors being equal, we can predict that each year
we should have more attacks than in the previous year because of this
human population growth. Of course environmental factors do vary from
year to year, affecting the numbers of both sharks and humans in the
water. Economic and social conditions also affect the number of humans
in the water as well. The bottom line, though, is that the attack
RATE is not increasing - in fact it likely is decreasing as a result
of diminished shark stocks and large increases in human utilization
of our nearshore waters. Attacks, be they by white sharks or other
shark species, sometimes occur in clusters and other times do not
occur for long periods. Within a given calendar year, they also often
occur seasonally in clumps. We, as humans, tend to remember the clusters
and forget (or never realize) the long periods between attacks. In
part this is because of media coverage. When was the last time one
read a story about the long hiatus between attacks? By contrast, shark
attacks - and especially fatal shark attacks, no matter how rare -
are big news items around the world. It's the same old media controversy
we hear all the time - bad news sells, good news doesn't...