Wednesday, September 26, 2007

George Burgess - shark attack guru.

Whenever there is a shark incident in the US, journalists try to get a hold of the person many consider to be a leading expert on shark attacks: George Burgess.

Burgess has been featured many times in "Shark Week", always interviewed in attack-relatted matters. Over the years, he has thus become, or would like to be considered as, some sort of a shark attack guru.

George Burgess is the coordinator of Museum Operations at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, Gainsville. He is also in charge of the International Shark Attack File.

While nobody would doubt that Burgess has acquired relevant knowledge about sharks over the years, one wonders whether he really understands their true nature. I cannot escape the feeling that deep down George Burgess is quite afraid of sharks - that would explain why he got so interested in, if not obsessed with, shark 'attacks'. He seems to be less intrigued by the beauty of sharks than by their powerful "Jaws"...

At any rate, I would not call Burgess a committed sympathizer of the sharks' cause. And sharks are in dire need of people who fight to do them justice, courageous people like Robert Stewart ("Sharkwater").

The Discovery Channel featured in this year's "Shark Week" a report on the sinking of the "Indianapolis" (1945), emphasizing on what they call "the worst shark attack ever". The telling title of this episode: "Ocean of Fear". It should not come as a surprise that nobody knows how many survivors of the sunken ship were actually bitten (or eaten) by sharks. Who cares about such insignificant details as long as this was the "worst shark attack ever"?.... Inevitably, the Discovery Channel engaged Burgess to give this sensationalistic documentary some type of pseudo-scientific credence.

I found "Ocean of Fear", as most the other "Shark Week" episodes, with the exception of "Deadly Stripes", most annoying.

Unless the Discovery Channel finds an adequate balance between good entertainment and serious education, shark scientists and other experts should not lend their names to support documentaries that still bank on people's archaic fears of being eaten alive.

Following is a letter I wrote to George Burgess:

From: Wolfgang Leander < > Date: Sep 26, 2007 5:49 PM Subject: Shark Week To: "George H. Burgess" <>

Dear George:

I have seen, the day before yesterday, the first episode of this year's Shark Week - "Ocean of Fear" - dubbed, as I live in a Spanish speaking country.

This feature was absolutely terrible. I could not believe the low standard of the documentary with all the silly, Hollywood-type re-enactments of the "attacks". The cries of the shark victims, cruising Caribbean Reef sharks (probably Stuart Cove's pets), and those countless
buckets of red paint - high entertainment value for the simple minded. The original version was narrated by Richard Dreyfuss - a very subtle evocation of "Jaws"...

You will agree with me that "Ocean of Fear", and the other part I saw yesterday ("Eaten Alive"), has NOTHING to do with educating the public about the true nature of sharks. It seems that nobody at the Discovery Channel has the slightest intention to inform their viewers objectively. They want to terrify them. The titles of the episodes say it all.

Now, what I found rather disturbing is that a guy of the caliber of George Burgess lent himself to give this sensationalistic piece of cheap entertainment the appearence of a scientific foundation. It is strange, but telling, that nobody blamed war or, more specifically, two Japanese torpedoes for the casualties of the Indianapolis. Instead - what else is new? - it is the sharks that were the culprits. People still droole about the alleged shark carnage that happened 62 years ago speculating what kind of sharks feasted on the poor seamen who were lucky not to have gone down with the battleship.

Well, if the sharks that were on the spot then were oceanic whitetips, then it would have been much more appropriate for the Discovery Channel to show that these sharks, once abundant in the world's oceans, have been decimated by almost 90% in a matter of decades, and that the 10% that are left are likely to find their way into the kitchens of Chinese restaurants.

George, I am sure you were not aware of the poor quality of this feature while you did your part, and I sincerely hope that you will
flatly refuse to cooperate with the Discovery Channel in the future unless they stop portraying sharks as mindless killing beasts. That is the least you and your fellow shark researchers can do to demonstrate resistance to the reckless way the Discovery Channel exploit people's completely irrational fear of sharks.

I really believe all researchers should boycott the Discovery Channel for grossly distorting the facts about sharks, for focussing only on their teeth and not on the crucial role they play in the oceans, and for not showing that sharks are NOT dangerous. Potentially they are, yes, as are "killer" coconuts that could fall on people's heads while walking under coconut palmtrees.

I hope you don't get me wrong - I am not offering unsolicited advice; I am writing this to you trusting that you will appreciate my concerns.

Many people, not necessarily "shark lovers", are becoming quite frustrated about the low informational value of "Shark Week" - let them know that you won't be at their diposal if they keep vilifying the sharks.



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