As keeper of the International Shark Attack File, and a noted shark-bite investigator, it fell to George Burgess to take a scholarly look at an adult-film actress’ claims last week of an attack in Florida waters.
It’s all recorded on an oft-viewed YouTube video, except the actual moment when teeth met flesh, and Burgess had no shortage of research material as colleagues emailed headlines — “Porn star attacked by shark: See the Horrifying Video.”
“I can tell you for a fact, it was not a shark bite,” Burgess said Tuesday about a slice in the actress’s foot allegedly wrought by a lemon shark. “How it was inflicted is conjectural, but the main thing is, the injury is not a shark bite. It was a PR stunt, and it worked.”
Sharks sell. Porn sells. Sharks and porn together — slam dunk. Now add the specter of fake news, and an internet trifecta is formed. Some media outlets, including The Palm Beach Post, posted the story online.
Neither the film company, nor the actress, responded Tuesday to attempts to contact them.
But Burgess isn’t the only person questioning the bite, which allegedly occurred as the actress was swimming to the surface out of a shark cage. The news release said her foot slipped between cage bars as she surfaced and was bitten. Twenty stitches were allegedly required.
Bryce Rohrer, owner of Jupiter-based Florida Shark Diving, said the actress solicited his company two months ago, asking if it would take her and the film crew out because they wanted to fake a shark bite that would go “viral.”
She texted him an image of what the wound would look like with special effect makeup.
“We immediately declined,” Rohrer said. “We are pro-shark, pro-wildlife, and want to show the importance of sharks, not villainize them.”
Rohrer said another company agreed to take them out and the film was made off Palm Beach County.
“It’s so bad for business, so bad for the image of sharks in general and makes shark diving look really bad,” Rohrer said.
Florida Atlantic University shark researcher Stephen Kajiura reviewed the video and said the linear gash on the woman’s foot is not something that would typically be caused by shark teeth. Shark bites tend to be arcs, because their teeth are in a semi-circular pattern.
If there is a slash, it’s usually multiple slashes because more than one tooth would be used.
“For a wound that deep, one would expect to see multiple parallel slashes from teeth, not a single slash,” said Kajiura, who added that he couldn’t completely dismiss the possibility of bite.
But, he said: “It makes more sense that she was cut on the side of the cage, then blamed the sharks for the publicity.”
Kajiura questioned the functionality of the shark cage, which he said was “not well-designed.” Burgess said it looked homemade — there is a protective mesh around the lower part of the cage, but not the top — and thought the slash might have occurred in a spot where metal was welded together.
“The wound didn’t look like a shark bite to me, either,” said R. Dean Grubbs, associate director of research at Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory. “There should have been multiple tooth marks, and such a slice is inconsistent with a shark bite.”
Normally, Burgess would contact the shark-bite victim and authorities to get more information before adding an incident to the shark attack file. He said sharks don’t care if you’re an “altar boy or a porn star” and that the incident deserved review.
But he said he could immediately see the wound was not a bite and didn’t want to “feed into the narrative” of porn star vs. shark.
“The museum doesn’t need that kind of publicity,” he said.
The International Shark Attack File is housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. It was created by the Navy in 1958 after attacks on World War II servicemen, and was originally housed at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1988, it made its way to the University of Florida under the care of Burgess.
Burgess said he’s reviewed shark attack claims in the past that turned out to be false, including one of a well-known celebrity that he said he couldn’t verify.
“Sharks and shark bites have a cache value that there is no getting around,” Burgess said.
Sharks have recovered in numbers and reputation in recent years, even having their own luminaries such as Katharine the great white, who is fond of Florida’s east coast. Katharine is tracked by OCEARCH, which tagged her fin with a device that shows her location when she surfaces.
Still, sharks don’t need unwarranted celebrity, Burgess said.
“Anyone who wants to talk about shark attacks will get publicity, and, frankly, that’s what this is,” Burgess said about the incident last week. “If you say you’ve been bitten by a shark, you will be the object of discussion.”