Saturday, June 25, 2005

Great book about the great white shark

Susan Casey is the author that tells a true story about a person's interest in the great white shark. Posted by Hello

Great stories are still sometimes just waiting to be told, as Susan Casey demonstrates in her intriguing and often compelling new non-fiction title "The Devil's Teeth."

The longtime magazine journalist from New York City takes readers to a little-known outpost of nature where everything seems to be extreme: the weather, the wildlife, the cadre of dedicated scientists who use it as their 211-acre laboratory. Yet the storm-ravaged Farallon Islands sit just 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge and are, in fact, within the San Francisco city limits.

A quarter-million seabirds live in splendid isolation in the Farallones, a national wildlife refuge. That's why a handful of ornithologists have conducted crucial research on seabirds there for decades among the most punishing conditions. And research in the Farallones also has focused on creatures of even more fascination: great white sharks, the predators atop the waterborne food chain.

Great whites are massive killing machines in most people's minds, forever immortalized in "Jaws." Yet here in the Farallones, two obsessed researchers named Scot Anderson and Peter Pyle kept positioning their17-foot Boston Whaler amid blood-red waters and the great whites feasting on elephant seals. The duo hoped to supplement fear of these imperiled creatures with some knowledge.

The Farallon White Shark Project is the focus of "The Devil's Teeth," a poetic title with great double meaning, referring to both the nickname of the Farallones used by 19th century mariners because of their jagged shape and their dangers, and to the sharks themselves. Casey -- through persistence, guile and sometimes foolhardiness -- gives readers an inside view of this ever-perilous research in its "wicked scary" location, focusing on its close-up encounters with great whites and its hard scrap for funding and resources.

Casey has a flair for dramatic description, able to capture the characters she encounters or the landscape around her with equal aplomb. "The Devil's Teeth" succeeds best in painting a gripping portrait of scientists on the outer fringes of society and nature.

"Crack-ups, hookups, breakups, and even, according to Peter (Pyle), four divorces could all be chalked up to the Farallon crucible," Casey writes. "Nervous breakdowns snuck up on people after an eight-week run of bleak weather, a few missed grocery drop-offs, a piggish housemate or two, and days spent watching animals kill and eat each other. Tempers exploded, psyches unraveled."

The pioneering shark research of Pyle and Anderson -- which had been the subject of an award-winning BBC TV documentary that introduced Casey to the subject -- gets the appreciative notice it deserves.

There are so many unforgettable scenes with these Northern California surfer/scientists in their small boat amid the great whites, close enough to recognize individual sharks and even give them names like Bitehead, Bluntnose, Whiteslash and Jerry Garcia. The duo's impressive research included not only wielding tiny underwater cameras on poles but also "tagging" individual sharks with tiny satellite computers to track their journeys to their annual fall return to the Farallones.

The discoveries of these intrepid scientists since 1987 have contradicted many prevailing notions about great whites. These massive creatures, which can reach 20 feet long and 8 feet across, hunt by day rather than night; stalk their prey by eyesight rather than smell (which was one reason they attacked surfers since their boards had a similar shape to seals); travel great distances in deep water rather than haunt the coastlines.

Casey manages to capture all this and even more in "The Devil's Teeth," from the troubled history of humans on the Farallones to current controversies such as invasive tour boats that let paying customers in shark cages view the predators up close.

But "The Devil's Teeth" also is hampered by one great flaw -- the book's riveting early promise of drama and revelation ultimately runs aground on a climax that doesn't climax. Casey uses the chronology of her own Farallones' visits to shape the narrative, a natural impulse for a first-time book writer.

But the problem with that approach is that the final quarter of the book seems focused on her own ill-conceived idea of chartering a sailboat and having it serve as a floating research platform in the Farallones. Conditions on the boat turn grim and its anchored position becomes imperiled and the book's narrative drive stalls as Casey and her own concerns start to take center stage.

Casey's turn from observer to participant is an sad misstep in an otherwise exemplary tale of extremes in nature and in science.


Blogger Wednes Fri said...

Wow! So, it's like "Shark Week the Book". I'll have to picK one up. Sounds like a fascinating read.

11:56 PM  

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