Monday, July 04, 2005

Recommend book on truth about great white sharks

It has been 30 years since the movie Jaws was released, and North American interest in white sharks -- usually referred to as great white sharks --hasn't abated much in the interim. Tune in to the Discovery Channel, and you are likely to catch a shark show almost any time.

Shark Week is the year's biggest draw. That many of these purported documentaries lack a cohesive story line, shamelessly manipulate their biological subjects and anoint dubious pseudo-scientists as "experts" apparently does not keep viewers away from their much-needed white shark fix.

Sharks, fundamentally, are the ocean's anti-heroes, the predators people love to hate. And, as anyone in the media will tell you, sharks sell. It is sad that these majestic survivors of Devonian waters have been largely relegated to cheap thrills, sweeps-week entertainment and teases on 24-hour news networks.

There are, of course, many who have a nobler view of sharks. One of those is author Susan Casey, in The Devil's Teeth. Casey has explored her passion for white sharks in a way for which many shark groupies would kill -- she made forays off San Francisco to the Farallon Islands, the home of North America's most robust white shark population. There she rubbed elbows with scientists and had the opportunity to encounter white sharks at close quarters. Recollections of those experiences are the subject of her book.

White sharks are the largest of the predatory sharks, reaching lengths of 20 feet. Like most shark species, their populations have significantly declined worldwide as a result of overfishing, habitat loss and reduction in the abundance of their natural prey. White sharks are protected in many areas of the world, including the United States, Australia and South Africa, and serve as poster children for their imperilled sister species.

It is ironic that sharks, the mostly highly adapted and respected predators in the sea, possess a biological Achilles heel: Long lives, slow growth and limited production of live-born young make these species much more vulnerable to fishing pressure than their bony-fish cousins. As a result, even if fishing were to be halted immediately, it would take many decades for most species of sharks to recover to former levels.

One would expect that Casey, a fine writer with excellent magazine credentials (the Toronto native is development editor at Time Inc. in New York City), would turn this once-in-a-lifetime adventure into a big-time piece. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Though the natural history part of the book is splendid, Casey's love of her subject -- the jacket copy calls it an "obsession" -- has turned part of her story into a fan's narrative in which people and events are viewed consistently through rose-tinted glasses. These overly sympathetic characterizations result in this reader questioning the integrity of some of her observations.

For instance, virtually all of the story's players are described as if they were soap-opera characters, where even winos are studs and all women wear Size 6. Perhaps, as a biologist, I am too close to the subject, but when scientists, even unproved graduate students, are uniformly characterized as handsome or beautiful, rugged and nimble, incredibly intelligent and possessing unparalleled skills, I am naturally skeptical. I know for a fact that most of us don't fit that description; like all folks, we have warts.

As a result, in places this tale reads more like an infomercial than a documentary, as if Casey were writing about loved family members she hoped not to offend.

Ornithologist turned shark-watcher Peter Pyle, for instance, comes across as a fine naturalist, one more than happy to retreat to the isolation of the rugged, stormy and forbidding Farallons.

Secondary characters are all given some individuality. On the other hand, Casey, who is really the book's central character, honestly portrays herself as a neophyte suffering the rigours of substandard housing and food commonly endured by field biologists.

The book also suffers from an unfortunate real-world ending that mutes the momentum of the story. One anticipates a stirring finale to this tale of lives spent waiting for huge predators to gobble up the nearest elephant seal, but it seems rather to fade away. Since one of the story's biologist heroes ends up losing his dream job as a result of bowing to the author's obsession, the final impression is one of Casey gaining material for her book at the expense of one of her main characters, who ends up holding the bag for her actions. What could have been an uplifting communion-with-nature story becomes a mini-tragedy that leaves a bad taste.

That said, it is Casey's handling of natural history -- the sharks and the abundant bird life -- that is the book's great strength. Her background on the history of the Farallons is captivating stuff and. By and large, the biological facts she provides are accurate, although there is some misinformation scattered throughout. Her fascination with the sea and its creatures is infectious. And no one will question Casey's writing, which (like her characters) is intelligent and stylish and conveys both her fear and awe at occupying the same ocean as such magnificent creatures.

Pick up The Devil's Teeth if you are interested in natural history or just can't get enough of sharks. It is a good, if not totally satisfying, read. A segment of the story has appeared in Sports Illustrated, presumably because shark watching, like ogling models in swimsuits, is now regarded as sport (the Farallon researchers have to cope with boatloads of divers).

The book could even become a bestseller since, well, sharks sell.George H. Burgess is director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He is also curator of the International Shark Attack File, which has investigated shark attacks since 1958, and is involved in shark conservation.


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