George Burgess knows a lot about shark attacks. He spends his days as director emeritus at the International Shark Attack File investigating them, and on Saturday he came to Hilton Head Island to share that information with lifeguards.
The United States Lifesaving Association South Atlantic Region hosted Burgess’ presentation, “Shark Attack: A Global Perspective,” wherein he regaled attendees with tales of an investigation he had just returned from on Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic.
“I was dealing with a shark attack situation there that was quite different than what you see on the beaches in South Carolina and Florida,” Burgess said to The Packet in an interview before his presentation, noting that two attacks had occurred in 2017 in that island’s coastal waters. “Neither of them were fatal, though one was darn close, and it took some very special life saving maneuvers to save the guy’s life. It demonstrates what life is like in a place where sharks are a real problem.”
While we see our share of bites, South Carolina averages only about five a year Burgess said, with most of those being minor, though there were eight in the summer of 2017. Sometimes a bite isn’t even readily identifiable as a bite until an investigation has been completed.
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“We’ve had a couple that were so minor that we are still waiting to hear back conclusively on them. We thought one or two of them could have stepped on a horseshoe crab,” he said. “The ones we see in the Carolinas are primarily what we call ‘hit and run’ attacks. They’re just cases of smaller sharks making mistakes and interpreting splashing from hands and feet as being the movements of their normal prey.”
Small lacerations and tooth depressions are typical in these kinds of attacks according to Burgess, and very occasionally some nerve or tendon damage, but very rarely are there any debilitating injuries, he said.
Still, attacks can happen, so they should be prepared for, and even expected to a certain degree, Burgess said.
“When you go into the sea it isn’t like going into the YMCA pool. You enter the sea and you are entering the wilderness. It is a wild world that we’re not adapted for. Every time we embark on a wilderness experience we have to weigh the risks,” he said.
He compared entering the ocean to crossing the Serengeti knowing that there are predators and wild animals about. It is the same thing when you enter the ocean. Still, the risk of a shark attack is far lower than other concerns that ocean goers should have.
“Drownings are measured in thousands each year, while we average 3 or 4 shark deaths worldwide over the last decade,” Burgess said. “Still, it is something that lifesavers need to be prepared for.”
So, what should a lifeguard do if they see a shark attack? Burgess literally helped to write the book on that.
There are no documented cases of a shark attacking a lifeguard attempting to rescue a person from an attack, according to Burgess. His advice? Dive in and help as soon as possible.
“As more shark attacks are documented annually, this is an opportunity for officials from agencies to better understand shark activity and potential for danger,” said a USLA release.
Of the 130 to 150 attacks that Burgess investigates each year, he said between 80 to 85 could be attributed to unprovoked attacks on people by sharks. The remainder were either provoked by those attacked or were misreported and not actually attacks.