Emergency responders assist a teenage girl at the scene of a shark attack in Oak Island, N.C. Officials say a 17-year-old boy is the latest victim of a shark attack off North Carolina's coast June 27, 2015. It is the sixth attack in two weeks. Photo by Steve Bouser / The Pilot / AP
Expert in ‘shark attack capital’ of Volusia says respect, don’t fear predators

When it comes to sharks and shark attacks, George Burgess is the go-to guy. Within 24 hours after two life-threatening attacks off the North Carolina coast in early June, the director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History had given more than 200 media interviews.

Two young swimmers lost limbs in separate shark attacks while swimming in waist-deep water offshore of Oak Island, North Carolina and reporters all over the world had questions for Burgess. The timing of the attacks was a fluke: A week before the 40th anniversary re-release of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster "Jaws," originally released on June 20, 1975.

Later that week, Burgess headed to Daytona Beach to film promotions with Volkswagen for the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, which starts July 5. Volusia County, where Daytona Beach is located, is considered the "shark attack capital of the world," mostly due to a high number of bites in the surfing mecca of New Smyrna Beach on the county's southern end.

George Burgess, right, director of the International Shark Attack File with the University of Florida talks with Global Rallycross driver Scott Speed at Daytona International Speedway, Thursday, June 18, 2015. Photo by News-Journal / Nigel Cook.
While in Daytona Beach, Burgess narrowly missed being on scene when a 10-year-old boy was bitten by a shark while swimming. It was the closest Burgess had ever been to a shark bite as it occurred. "It was here on the beach literally 100 yards from my hotel," he said.

The next day Burgess took time to answer a few questions:

Q: How do the attacks in North Carolina compare to the bites we get here?

A: “They weren't the nips we get here routinely. The North Carolina attacks were done by a larger shark that means business, a bull shark or a tiger shark, not the blacktips or spinners that are implicated here so often in Florida. There has never been a fatal shark attack in Volusia County. My understanding is that the young boy bitten yesterday is back on the beach today as we speak.”

Q: “Do we have bull and tiger sharks in our waters?”

A: “You bet we do. Large sharks occasionally do pass through our water and they may be out there right now. We're not immune from the possibility of having a serious thing like that occur.”

Q: Should people be afraid to swim in the ocean?

A: "No. They shouldn't be afraid, they should be respectful of the fact when they enter the sea, they're entering as eco-tourists. What we're doing when we enter the sea, even in beautiful Daytona Beach, with its long history and beautiful beaches, that's a wild world out there when we cross the sand and go into the water. Unlike any other wilderness experience, here we take off our clothes and go into the water as naked as we can possibly get, then there we go, naked and dumb into the ocean. Can you imagine taking off your clothes and walking up naked to a pride of lions in Africa? We enter this wild world and we expect it to be like our backyard pool. In reality, it's a pretty forgiving situation. There were only 72 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide last year. Up against all the other (risks) associated with aquatic recreation it's near the bottom of the list. They're not any more hungry, they're not doing anything different. All we're doing is a better job of taking selfies with them."

Q: What do you wish people would realize about sharks?

A: “I think there is an apparent perception that there are more shark attacks. The actual answer is no, there aren't especially more shark attacks, given the generalization that in any given year one can expect more attacks because there are more people in the water.

Over the last 11 decades each decade has had more attacks than the past decade. The human population continues to rise … and we can expect each decade to have more attacks. Are we seeing a sudden increase this year? The answer is no. We get that perception because every one of us has a cellphone and every person that's out on the beach or in the water or in a condo or hotel, if they see a shark swimming, they'll take a picture. “

Q: What safety precautions should swimmers take in the ocean?

A: “Honor the instructions of beach safety personnel. Yesterday when I pulled onto the beach I saw a big red flag. I knew the status was 'watch out.'

• Keep together in groups. The more you stay together, the less likely you are to be bit.

• Keep away from times when sharks are more active — between dusk and dawn. That's when they're most active, when they're feeding.

• If you see birds diving, that means there's schooling fish at the water's surface and that's a sign sharks may be around.

• Don't wear jewelry in the water, especially rings on hands and feet, because moving in the water they give a real good impression of light coming off the scales of fishes. If there's a glimpse of light and splashes, it's going to enhance the image in the shark's mind that's a normal prey item.”

— Dinah Voyles Pulver, Daytona News-Journal