The Devil's Teeth is worth reading!
Roughly 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Farallon Islands, a tightly supervised national wildlife refuge, offer shelter to an assortment of birds and seals. Part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the islands also attract one of the world's largest congregations of sharks. From September through November, scores of them swim close to the shorelines.
In "The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks," Susan Casey writes with awe and wonder of these islands, "fragile, hollow in places, and made of eighty-nine-million-year-old granite, much of which has gone rotten and crumbles to the touch."
She describes the sharks' mysterious annual appearances, their habits and behaviors, and her interactions with Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, who have studied the creatures for more than a decade and a half as part of the Farallon Islands White Shark Project. Unfortunately, however, she does not provide enough information about the men's personalities. Their portrayals remain incomplete.
Casey, a development editor in New York City for Time Inc., first heard of the Farallon Islands in 1998 when she caught a BBC documentary, "The Great White Shark," on Pyle and Anderson's work. Fascinated by the images onscreen, she wanted to learn more.
The islands seemed to her a place where "the usual rules of civilization did not apply ... where nothing was fake and nothing was for sale, where cars and credit cards, cell phones and expensive high-heeled shoes got you nowhere, where animals thrived while people died in any number of unlikely ways."
Separated from the rest of Northern California by jagged cliffs, treacherous rocks and miles of ocean, their access restricted by federal law to biologists who monitor the wildlife there, the Farallones, she discovers, do indeed exist in a realm of their own. They are isolating and invigorating, mystifying and mesmerizing.
The great white sharks that arrive near the islands each autumn are equally mesmerizing. Casey talks at length with Pyle and Anderson about them. Through various arrangements, she is able to spend time with the men on site, in the weather-beaten house on Southeast Farallon Island they share three months out of the year and on their boats.
According to the author, the same sharks come to the same spots in the Farallones in part to hunt. They are drawn to the seals there -- "northern elephant seals, harbor seals, fur seals ... all barking and bellowing, draped on the rocks like a blubbery carpet." The male sharks return every year. But the females return only every other year, often with gashes around their heads. Where do they go when they are not near the islands? To warmer climates to give birth? Are their wounds mating related? Questions abound.
Through research and observation, however, scientists do know that the creatures -- to which Pyle and Anderson have given names such as Cal Ripfin, Bitehead and Jerry Garcia -- exhibit individual personalities. They have distinguishing characteristics. "There were aggressors and there were clowns; there were mellow sharks and peevish sharks and sharks that meant absolute bloody business." Casey also looks at the ways in which Pyle and Anderson complement each other. Although the men come from slightly different backgrounds, they share a passion and commitment.
Pyle, one of the Farallones' head biologists, is a highly regarded ornithologist and natural historian. Though generally friendly and receptive, he has a low tolerance for people with misguided priorities. Chasing birds, he has hitchhiked over the years through Nicaraguan jungles, Indian slums and Samoan fruit bat colonies. But the least likable place he'd seen in the world, he said, was Walnut Creek.
Anderson, raised in Tiburon (Spanish for "shark"), grew up a shark fiend. Pictures of sharks adorned his bedroom walls. He heard stories about the Farallones throughout his childhood and made his way there over several years. "He could see things about the sharks that no one else could. He had a sixth sense for knowing where to look at just the right moment, and eyesight one could fairly describe as bionic."
What the author doesn't do, though, is provide a strong enough sense of the scientists' lives outside of work, of their interactions with friends and families in Inverness, for example. Do their friends think they're obsessed? Do their families worry each time they leave for the Farallones? Do the men get extraordinarily restless the other nine months of the year?
Perhaps Pyle and Anderson did not allow Casey access to their everyday lives. Perhaps they believed the important anecdotes centered on the sharks. But the details would have been nice. They would have provided contrast.
They would have created a more complete depiction of these men, whose careers for close to two decades have been devoted to the preservation of the Farallones and their inhabitants. They would have helped transform "The Devil's Teeth" from an ordinary narrator-driven story into a compelling character-driven drama.