When the shark bites …
When you walk into George Burgess’ office, his interests are obvious.
In one corner, there is a row of beer bottles and assorted liquors. Below it, you can find pepper sauce and a can of Beefaroni. Next to that is a box of gummy snacks. What do they have in common: Sharks are depicted on each item.
Of course, the Great-Bearded Burgess is none other than the world’s leading shark expert, having studied sharks and rays for more than 40 years.
“My colleagues and students have gotten into the habit of giving me anything related to sharks or have sharks on it,” said Burgess about the variety of items in his tiny, shark-adorned office at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“Sharks are high profile,” he said. “We all seem to be attracted to sharks.”
Burgess’ attraction to them began when he first put on a snorkeling mask and stuck his head under the water.
“My parents got me into the water, and then they couldn’t get me out,” he said. “I really dug the animals on the beach.”
Burgess said the first shark he ever saw was in the book “The Silent World,” written by the famous sea-explorer Jacques Cousteau.
Today, he sees sharks almost every day as the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum. He also serves as curator of the International Shark Attack File, a comprehensive scientific database that is recognized as the definitive source of worldwide information on shark attacks.
As curator of the shark attack file, Burgess is called around the world to places such as Brazil, Egypt, Florida, Hawaii, Hong Kong and Mexico, as a consultant to national and local governments.
“It’s usually a government’s last option to call in a ‘shark expert’,” he said. “The previous options are usually ways of killing them, which is the worst.”
The International Shark Attack File website attracts an average of 500,000 visits a month, which turns to millions of visits during times of shark attacks. Burgess said he uses the website and his expertise on the ocean predator as a springboard for more important discussions.
“Only five [people] die a year,” he said. “So obviously, they aren’t a threat. Let us get to the real problems. Sharks, in general, are in decline around the world.”
Burgess said it’s his life’s goal to bring the population of sharks, skates and rays back to normal, even though he knows it won’t happen in his lifetime or those of his students.
“They’re long-lived animals,” he said. “Once a population is down, it takes a long time to get it back up. It’s measured in decades instead of years.”
Still, Burgess said he hopes to inform and persuade governments toward shark conservation and sustainable fishing practices.
“Over time, I suppose I have become the Shark Guy with a capital S and capital G,” he said. “I’m happy to be that guy.”