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The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks Paperback – May 30, 2006
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In a post-Jaws/Discovery Channel world, unearthing fresh data on great white sharks is a feat. So credit Susan Casey not just with finding and spotlighting two biologists who have done truly pioneering field research on the beasts but also with following them and their subjects into the heart of one of the most unnatural habitats on Earth: the Farallon Islands. Though just 30 miles due west of San Francisco, the Farallones--nicknamed the Devil's Teeth for their ragged appearance and raging inhospitality--are utterly alien, which may explain why each autumn, packs of great whites return to gorge on the seals and sea lions that gather there before returning to the Pacific and beyond. That Casey, via her biologist buddies Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, can even report that sharks apparently follow migratory feeding patterns is a revelation. Throughout The Devil's Teeth, Casey makes clear that year upon year of observing the sharks have given Pyle and Anderson (and by extension, us) insights into shark behavior that are entirely new and too numerous to list. The otherworldly Farallon Islands, meanwhile, also dominate Casey's engaging tale as she charts their transformation from ultradangerous source of wild eggs in the 19th century to ultradangerous real-life shark lab and bird sanctuary today. Despite the plethora of factoids on offer, Casey's style is consistently digestible and very amusing. She also has a knack for putting things into perspective. Take this characteristic passage:
The Farallon great whites are largely unharassed. They might cross paths with the occasional boatload of day-trippers from San Francisco, but they're subjected to none of the behavior-altering coercion that nature's top predators regularly endure so that people can sit in the Winnebago... and get a look at them. This is important because despite their visibility at the Farallones, and despite the impressive truth that sharks are so old they predate trees, great whites have remained among the most mysterious of creatures."By book's end, it's hard to know what's more captivating: The biologists' groundbreaking data, Casey's primer on the evolution of the Farallones, the islands' symbiotic relationships with the sharks, the gulls and sea lions they attract, or the outpost's resident ghosts. Frankly, it's a nice problem to have. --Kim Hughes
Getting to Know the Great White
The outer edge of the fearsome Maintop Bay, a spooky, boat-eating stretch of water that makes everyone uneasy. Not surprisingly, the sharks seem to love it. (Susan Casey)
An 18-foot shark investigates a 6-foot surfboard. (Peter Pyle)
A shark attack at the Farallones is not usually a subtle event. (Peter Pyle)
Scot Anderson (in orange) observes a feeding. Also in the boat are director Paul Atkins and cinematographer Peter Scoones of the BBC film crew that visited the Farallones in 1993 to film The Great White Shark. (Peter Pyle)
The Farallones researchers see some action from a shark named Bluntnose. (Peter Pyle)
An unquiet cove: Just Imagine (Casey's temporary home) at its moorage in Fisherman's Bay, 150 yards west of Tower Point and 200 yards east of Sugarloaf. (Susan Casey)
From Publishers Weekly
From its startling opening description of scientists racing to the bloody scene where a shark has decapitated a seal, this memoir–cum–natural and cultural history of the Farallon Islands—"the spookiest, wildest place on Earth"—plunges readers into the thrills of shark watching. Casey, a sportswriter with recurring dreams about deep-sea creatures, "became haunted" by the 211-acre archipelago 27 miles west of San Francisco when she saw a BBC documentary about Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, biologists who study the great white sharks there. The islands are the only place on Earth where scientists can study the animals in their natural habitat. These evolutionary ancients (sharks lived 200 million years before dinosaurs) can be as large as Mack trucks, eat suits of armor, are both fierce and friendly, and, according to Casey, are an addictive fascination for those lucky enough to encounter them. Casey's three-week solo stay on a yacht anchored in shark waters is itself an adventure, with the author evacuating just hours before the yacht disappeared in a storm. Her suspenseful narrative perfectly matches the drama and mystery of these islands, their resident sharks and the scientists who love them. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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I did feel that the story line did begin to drag at about the 70% point. From then on out I was searching for the end.
Susan gives an account of a place that very few people will ever see or step foot on, as no one but scientists are allowed land access on the Farallon islands. And when you read her account of the appalling human history on these islands, the murder and rampaging that humans have done, how we brought to the verge of extinction the population of fur seals and then common murres at the islands, as well as the use of the waters surrounding the Farallons for the dumping of barrels of nuclear waste, one is tempted to suggest we ban even scientists from touching these precious places so important to so many animals.
Fortunately for the animals who live and breed there, the Farallons are a place very hostile to human habitation, as is made abundantly clear by Susan's accounts of the many discomforts she and her companion scientists endured to observe great white sharks and other animals on the islands. It really boggles my mind how anyone could endure such conditions for more than a few months in their life, the conditions are not only so uncomfortable, but also dangerous.
A partial list of the challenges: No docking facilities (islands too rocky and waters too rough), no safe swimming or surfing (surfboards get to get "tested" by sharks when laid out -- large bites taken out of them), waters between San Francisco Bay and the islands are considered the most dangerous on the West coast, thousands of resident birds scream 24 hours a day and gulls often dive-bomb humans, winds howl and break parts off buildings, the ground is rocky and barren and covered with bird carcasses or baby birds stuffed in every available crevice, the ammonia from bird guano is omnipresent and in places not only overpowering but deadly -- at least one person died from the ammonia fumes from the guano. At the islands, one is forced to a closeup encounter with nature's cruelest scenarios -- sharks biting off the back half of a seal, who then cries while attempting to climb out of the water, missing half of its body -- routine decapitations of elephant seal babies and seals -- gulls by the thousands murdering other birds on the island by pecking them in the head with beaks used as swords (referred to by scientists as P.I.H.= peck in head). The climb to the lighthouse is on a slope covered with loose rock, where it is easy to fall and be injured, and the lighthouse is an exceptionally windy place where it is quite uncomfortable to stand and look around, which scientists must do hours at a time -- and there is a resident ghost on the island, a woman in a white dress who has been seen by many scientists -- just the kind of people who usually don't believe in ghosts. Then too one has to deal with lack of water for showers, the bird lice that climb up your legs and get in your hair, the "anus flies" that spend most of their time in seal's behinds and come out to climb on your face or hair afterwards -- (and then the lack of water for regular showers becomes all the more appalling) ,meals that grow less tasty as supplies run out and dinners have to be cobbled together with whatever cans of something are left, sleeping on old, dirty mattresses in rooms with peeling paint and grime on the walls, and the reality that if you suddenly develop cabin fever, you are stuck -- you can't just get off the island whenever you feel like it, particularly in a storm. And then, borrowing a boat to use to live in and conduct shark research out of, and having to deal with a never-functioning plumbing system that results in the toilet vomiting forth geysers of excreta, having to grope around in subterranean areas of the boat in a stinking bilge vat to search for the hose or part that might need repairing, and then getting seasick and unable to leave the boat during rough seas. Oh, and finally being sued and losing one's job when a storm breaks a boat's anchor and results in the drifting away of the borrowed boat -- found in quite bad condition a year later about 500 miles away.
By the end of the story, the reader gets the picture -- about the only thing lacking on the Farallon islands to make it more hostile to humans, is some pandemic like Ebola.
So, put it all together, and I am already itching to get way far away from these islands, without having ever gotten anywhere near them. It is hard to imagine that anyone would have the interest or the tenacity to stay there for years at a time, which the scientists Peter and Scot did, to study the sharks. They deserve a lot of respect for that.
Excellent book and quite unforgettable story!
It is about curiosity cultivated to the point of passion and commitment.
Susan Casey's love of the sea and love of learning fuel this beautifully crafted story.
The book piqued my interest in science, geography, history, sociology, and even a bit of psychology.
Moreover, the character development and the relationships among them were very interesting.
One can learn about sharks and the sea in many ways these days, but this book lets us experience these things with the author's very keen insight and clever, illustrious turn of phrase.
In short, this book makes me crave immersion in the subject matter with the author at great length over a couple (few?) beers.
I really admire Casey's courage...because in the book she does some pretty remarkable things that never in a million years could I ever do. The book is written in a style that feels like Susan's describing all of what she's doing directly to you, like you're a friend. She also has a way of communicating the scientific topics she's talking about in a way that's very user friendly. For instance, she'll give the scientific names of things but won't forget to describe what that means to a layperson...and she'll add lots of sensory descriptors so her readers can get a feel for how things smell, taste, and feel in addition to what they look like. Ever wonder what it smells like when a whale blows air through its blowhole? Susan tells you (spoiler: it reeks like a septic tank).
I think one of the reasons I love this book so much is that Susan Casey lives in NYC and works for TIME and is very much an office worker/city dweller...so she's not a classic adventurer. She's gorgeous, with model-looks and a classic Manhattan life...but then she takes off on this trek to the Farallons and is subjected to all sorts of harsh things in the wild (remarkably just 20 miles from San Francisco). I love the movie Romancing the Stone...and the whole time I was reading this book I kept thinking of Kathleen Turner in that movie, and how she was a writer who suddenly found herself in these bizarre situations in such a remote place. Casey's struggles on the yacht "Just Imagine" are worth the price of the book alone.
And then there are the great white sharks and all that I learned about them from the book. I grew up terrified of sharks because of the movie JAWS and a freak encounter with a tiger shark I had about 15 years ago in open water in Hawaii. This book actually helped me get over that fear a little, and it really taught me something about the way the great whites operate. I love how Casey portrays their individual personalities in the book and really teaches us everything she herself learned on her time in the Farallons. Seeing how it's someplace I am never going to be able to visit in my lifetime, I relish the chance to "visit" this alien place via Casey's book every year or so when I re-read it.
The last thing I want to mention is that for a while I actually thought about booking a trip out on one of the Great White Shark Adventures boats to see the Farallons (from a distance) and to maybe catch a glimpse of a great white in the water the next time I would be in San Francisco. I was startled to see that in the book Susan Casey mentions by name the very tour operator I had thought about joining for one of his "great white shark adventures". But reading about this man's behavior in her book and learning about the negative impact he has on the sharks I will never give this guy a cent and won't participate in his "adventures". I am really tempted to take the whale watching cruise that Casey talks about...because that operator goes by the Farallons but seemingly doesn't interfere with any of the wildlife. In the book, the whale watchers actually help the shark researchers by carrying supplies and delivering passengers who needed a lift to the islands...and I just like giving my travel dollars to people who don't disrupt wildlife or harm rare creatures in any way. If not for Casey's book, I never would have known that the great white shark adventures people were so destructive.
If you love reading travel and adventure stories, then this book is a great one. It's also good if you want to read about a place you can never possibly visit...because the islands are restricted and Casey was beyond lucky to get the access she was granted. So, this book is kind of a passport to a world you can only see through Casey's eyes.
I really wish someone would make this into a movie...with a young Kathleen Turner type playing Susan casey. I actually think Emma Stone might be a good casting choice too, as I write this in the year 2013. Maybe someone reading this will run that up the flag pole at a Hollywood studio.
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