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Dispatches : Nature

George Burgess on the Science of Shark Attacks

Shutterstock_106591796Great white shark. Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock

Most people know George Burgess as the kahuna of shark attacks. For more than 20 years, Burgess has overseen the International Shark Attack File, a detailed listing of toothy maulings that goes back to the 1500s. He’s been quoted everywhere from The New York Times to the Discovery Channel. Burgess took on that gigwhich requires the orderliness of a librarian, the exactitude of a scientist, and the speaking skills of a public relations whiz—as a result of a voracious appetite for anything having to do with sharks, which he's had since he was a kid. “We all get excited about something as we’re growing up, whether it's sharks or Star Wars,” he says. “Sometimes people are lucky enough to follow along on their early interests, and I always knew early on that I wanted to study marine biology and that was where I was headed all the way through high school and college.”

As a teenager, he caught a nurse shark off the coast of Florida and was hooked. By the 1970s, he was attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina and catching sharks off a research boat. Now, in addition to running the International Shark Attack File, he also serves as the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, teaches ichthyology and marine biology at the University of Florida, and serves as a vice chairman of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, an international organization committed to the science and conservation of sharks and rays. As a result, he was more than happy to talk to us about two things: shark attacks in 2012 and the conservation status of sharks. We’ve divided that interview into two parts.

Up first, we talked to Burgess about the overall increase in shark attacks over the last century, Western Australia’s recent decision to hunt great whites before they attack people, and how climate change could affect the overall number of shark attacks. 

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Surviving a Great White Shark Attack

Shutterstock_89941513-1Great white shark. Photo: David Stephens/Shutterstock

On the morning of October 30, 2012, surfer Scott Stephens paddled out to a local break near Eureka, California, and was attacked by a great white shark. Here’s his story, with analysis of the attack by international shark attack expert George Burgess, as told to Joe Spring.

I’m 25 years old and I live in Samoa, California, which is just outside of Eureka. On October 30, I went down to the beach about 10:00 a.m. It’s only about 10 minutes from my house. It’s BLM land, so you can drive right out on the sand and park. It was just a beautiful morning—really calm offshore winds, a really high tide, and real clean, six-foot waves. I drove down to the beach and just watched for half an hour, figuring where I wanted to go out. There were about 20 guys in the water at a spot called Bunkers, which breaks just north of the jetty that is the harbor entrance to Humboldt Bay.

My buddy called me and said, “How do the waves look?”

I said, “How do you know I’m checking the surf right now?”

He said, “I know you too well. I’ll meet you out there.”

And so I went out.

I put on my new Xcel 5-4 wetsuit, which I had worn—maybe—a handful of times. I ran along the jetty and jumped in, letting the current take me out. I didn’t really have to paddle too much. It was about a quarter-mile to Bunkers. The wave breaks in pretty deep water about 500 yards from shore. It’s probably one of the furthest out spots that I surf. The waves just seem to funnel in through that channel and then break on the sandbar—A-frames that go right and left.

I went inside most of the guys out there because I’m a shorter guy and I ride a little bit shorter board. I sat where the waves were going to break right on me. I went both right and left, but toward the end, I just went left. I caught three in a row, and that put me further down the beach. I was separated from everyone else by about 150 yards. By that time there was about 10 people left. I had been surfing for more than an hour and a half.

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Energy Literacy, Part III: Test Your Knowledge

Mining-town_feA mining town in Australia. Photo: Microstock Man/Shutterstock

In Part I of this series, Adventure Ethics interviewed Tom Butler, co-author of Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, a new coffee table book by the Post Carbon Institute and the Foundation for Deep Ecology that shows and tells us, in graphic detail, the backstories that make up our current energy economy.

Part II provided an excerpt from the book. In it, Post Carbon Institute fellow Richard Heinberg argues that the cleanest energy is that which we don't generate in the first place. "In short," he writes, "our task in the 21st century is to scale back the human enterprise until it can be supported with levels of power that can be sustainably supplied, and until it no longer overwhelms natural ecosystems."

In Part III, it's time to test your own energy literacy with a short quiz. Below are five terms that are used frequently in Energy. Can you define them? Answers after the jump.

1: Embodied Energy

2: Energy Slaves

3: Energy Density

4: Energy Curtailment

5: Net Energy

Some of these concepts might have slightly different definitions, based on the source, but here are the answers, according to Tom Butler.

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Airstream Thanksgiving, Part II: The Long Road to Canyon de Chelly

Derelict_coal_plantIn the rough: Road 7950 out of Chaco Canyon. Photo: Katie Arnold.

There’s no direct route from Chaco Canyon, in northern New Mexico, to Canyon de Chelly, across the border in Arizona. Rugged badlands, sandy washes, and vast tracts of arid, roadless country get in the way. Centuries ago, Native Americans traveled back and forth on foot or horseback, but today, in a truck towing a vintage 20-foot Airstream, there are only two ways out of Chaco Canyon: the northern road, or the southern road. And it’s a toss-up which is worse.

Both roads are notorious for roughly 20 miles of washboardy dirt moguls that look benign but are big enough to swallow an Airstream whole, then spit it out in pieces. In our Airstream road trip the day before, we'd lost an entire window coming in from the north, and were so scarred by the experience that for a second it seemed almost preferable to abandon the trailer forever in Chaco than to face that road with it hitched on behind us. The next best thing would be to try our luck on the southbound route. We actually thought, How could it be any rougher?

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Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson on His Attempt to End Japanese Whaling

121202-TW-Paul-Photo-Shoot-03Paul Watson. Photo: Tim Watters/Sea Shepherd

Over the last three decades, most of the chases involving Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson have occurred on the high seas. He’s usually the one in pursuit, chasing down and engaging in steel on steel skirmishes with whalers and shark fishermen, attempting to stop them from harpooning and finning. This past May, though, Watson was pursued, and caught, in a political and criminal net of sorts. While on a flight changeover in Frankfurt, Germany, authorities arrested him for what he says was a decade-old offense involving a Costa Rican fishing boat operating off the coast of Guatamala. We’ll let him tell that story below.

He can because he’s free, taking calls from aboard his ship the Steve Irwin. Roughly a year after it was reported that Sea Shepherd caused the Institute of Cetacean Research—the Japanese group that hunts whales—more than $20 million in losses, Watson is leading Sea Shepherd’s biggest arsenal into the Southern Ocean. At his disposal are four ships, aerial drones, numerous speed boats, a helicopter, and more than 100 crew members. His goal in 2012 is to try and stop Japan from getting a single whale. We called him up as he captains his vessel south, toward drama that’s a bit more familiar.

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