TODAY   |  October 23, 2010

Expert: Shark attacks still rare

Despite the death of a 19-year-old whose leg was bitten off by a shark 100 yards off a California beach, fatal shark attacks in the United States average about one per year. TODAY's Amy Robach asks shark researcher George Burgess about the reasons sharks sometimes make people their prey.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

AMY ROBACH, co-host: This morning we are are learning new details about Friday's deadly shark attack off the coast of California . The victim was a 19-year-old former lifeguard who was boogie boarding with a friend when a suspected great white struck. More now from NBC 's Mark Potter .

MARK POTTER reporting: The beach where the attack occurred is now closed for the weekend. Witnesses say early in the morning in the surf line 100 yards offshore, 19-year-old college student Lucas Ransom was with a friend when he was attacked by a 14- to 18-foot shark which severed his left leg.

Sergeant JASON GROSSINI (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department): The friend was surfing. The victim was boogie boarding , saw his friend go underwater for a brief moment, came up, something was wrong, noticed that he had been attacked by a shark .

POTTER: The friend and two others pull Ransom to shore, but he was pronounced dead at the scene. Ransom 's boogie board had a bite mark more than a foot wide. Experts suspect it's from a white shark , often found in the cold waters off California , feeding on seals and sea lions .

Mr. GEORGE BURGESS (Director, Florida Program for Shark Research): They're apex predators, the top of the food chain , and as they are the largest of the predatory sharks, they go after large prey items. And unfortunately for us as humans, occasionally we fall into that category.

POTTER: The attack happened at Surf Beach in a public area of Vandenberg Air Force Base , 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles . The last shark attack here was two years ago, when another suspected white shark bit a surfer's board. Before the latest incident, officials say, there were 94 unprovoked shark attacks in California since the 1950s , 11 of them fatal.

Mr. CORY OLIVERA (Former High School Friend): He was a great and very intelligent kid. And he was -- he was a great athlete.

POTTER: Ransom was a former lifeguard who was honored three years ago for helping to save a boy's life. His friend who was with him when he died said ironically the two had joked just the night before about their chances of being attacked by a shark . For TODAY, Mark Potter , NBC News.

ROBACH: George Burgess is the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research . Good morning and thanks for being with us.

Mr. BURGESS: Glad to be with you .

ROBACH: And you just heard Mark Potter talk about how apparently those two young men were joking about their chances of being attacked by a shark , but in reality, in terms of perspective here, how many shark attacks are there off the coast of the United States ?

Mr. BURGESS: On average, about 40 attacks per year. This year's actually been quite low; this would be the 20th attack, so we're actually going to have a low year this year. Problem of course is that what kind of attack, what kind of shark bites you, is very important. And in the California coastline, it almost always is white sharks , and white sharks of course are the largest of the predatory sharks, so the consequences can be very meaningful, of course .

ROBACH: And how are most of these attacks instigated? I mean, we often hear of surfers and then, of course , the thought comes that perhaps these sharks think that they're looking at a seal or some other sort of marine mammal because that may mimic a different shape. What's the general belief as to why and how these attacks happen?

Mr. BURGESS: Well, of course , we can't get inside the heads of sharks, but probably in the case of the white sharks in California , the size, shape and location of the prey items are important. White sharks often at times are looking up and seeing silhouettes of their prey items, which are sea lions and seals . A human being , of course , in that environment, which we're generally near the water surface, oftentimes on a board, do a pretty good job of imitating that same shape and size. And so whether the shark is seeing us as the -- an appropriate-sized food item or is mistaking us for a seal or a sea lion , we're not sure. But obviously the consequences are the same for the human.

ROBACH: Right. And aside from the obvious, don't go in the water , how can you, if you're in the water , avoid a shark attack ? Can you avoid a shark attack ?

Mr. BURGESS: Well, we can reduce the risk by staying out of the areas where seals and sea lions are most common. Of course , these animals have haul out areas, areas where they leave the water to lay on the sand or the rocks. And those areas of aggregation, of course , are areas where white sharks also tend to aggregate because that's their meal. So, you know, if you're going to go surfing, probably better to avoid those kind of habitats. Look for areas where you don't see the seals and sea lions around.

ROBACH: And we know the friend of the victim did -- was able to pull him out of the water , but clearly not in enough time. He died on the scene. Is there a certain point of reference -- obviously bleeding is the biggest concern -- what you can do if you're with someone who is attacked?

Mr. BURGESS: Well, clearly getting the person out of the water to shore, to a boat, is the number one priority. First of all, the white sharks oftentimes will make one quick grab, let go, and then will come back for a second or a third time after a period of time. So during that grace period, that's the time to get out of the water as quickly as possible. Obviously, if there's a major injury, stemming the tide of the blood is all important, and getting direct pressure on the wounds and reducing that blood flow is all important. And then, of course , once you get to a boat or a shore, to get to immediate medical attention as quickly as possible.

ROBACH: It certainly is a tragic and sad situation. George Burgess , thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.