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 the till.

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 attacks?

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 to be!

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...
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