The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks - Susan Casey The jaws of a megaladon could open so wide that a modern quarter-horse could stand upright in them and not nick his head on teeth that were estimated to have been over 7 inches long. The ancestor of the great white shark, they survived at least four mass extinctions and evolved into a perfect predator.

Great whites have “an aura of gentleness” when they are not feeding. That’s not an assertion I would personally like to test out. Then again, perhaps our genes have an innate fear of dark things that inhabit alien environments, and perhaps our genetic remembrance is a remnant of our ancestors flight from the seas and the megaladon.

There are many hundreds of shark species, yet only four have been known to ingest humans: the Bull shark, White Tip, Tiger, and Great White. Not indiscriminate foragers, contrary to popular lore, great white eyes discriminate and studies have shown they will ignore shapes that don’t resemble one of their favorite meal: seals. A surfboard resembles a seal. Great White congregate around the Farallon Islands and it’s there that Casey went over a period of years to investigate the scientists studying the sharks, seals and birds who congregate in great numbers on these remote and forbidding islands located just west of San Francisco. The researchers came to recognize many of the sharks as individuals with different personality traits: some were clowns, some peevish, others consistently aggressive. They did not engage in the distinctive “feeding frenzy” long associated with sharks, rather they formed a sort of buffet line with the females having the right-away.

Humans have long had a love-hate relationship with sharks. Some civilizations venerated them; others damned them. While working on Pearl Harbor workers discovered large pens that archaeologists determined had been used for gladiatorial-like combat between sharks and local natives. (“ Pearl Harbor was the home of the shark goddess Ka'ahupahau and her brother (or son) Kahiʻuka who lived in caves at the entrance to the harbor, rich in pearl oysters, and who guarded the entrance against sharks. The construction of a Navy dry dock starting in 1919 enraged the local populace who believed the gods’ caves were being destroyed.) I decided to do a little fact-checking and found this entry in a book entitled Maneaters: Hawaiian kings threw living people into specially built enclosures containing sharks, and gladiatorial contests were staged between people and sharks that had been starved. The enclosure was a semi-circle of lava stones enclosing an area of a bout 4 acres at the edge of the sea. There was an opening to the sea where sharks could be lured in. During a contest the entrance was closed off. The gladiator was equipped with nothing more than a shark-tooth knife - a stick with a shark’s tooth at the end. When the shark rushed in for the attack, the gladiator had to swim quickly below and try to slice open the shark’s stomach with the single tooth.

Casey was granted a week-long permission on the island, ostensibly to study the mating habits of the hundreds of thousands of bird who reside there, some of whom were so eager to peck the back of one’s head that helmets were mandatory. This was at the time of massive interest in sharks, so everyone wanted to go to the Farallon’s and those researchers on the islands were under a great deal of pressure as they were seen as taking away the right of hordes of tourists who wanted their chance to see a great white disembowel some other creature. Her disingenuousness and mendacity about the real purpose for the trip lead to consequences for the shark research project.

Getting to the Farallons, home to numerous wrecks and lost ships, was hardly a walk in the park as the 27 miles from the Golden Gate, tended to be often nasty and even the most experienced captains had stories to tell of close calls. Everyone assumed there was nothing to it so they didn’t bring the bare necessities and the weather could change rapidly.

The Farallons is all about death, animals killing each other constantly and that can have a weird effect on those who work there. It drives many away almost immediately. Food supplies are not always delivered regularly, relationships develop, others break up, sometimes one is the cause of the other. And there is the constant noise of the birds, bird shit all over everything and scientists have to wear flea collars on their ankles to keep the bird vermin off them. Forget wearing any clothes you wish to keep.

Nicknamed the “Devil’s Teeth” because of the way they look, the Farallon Islands have an interesting pedigree. They were pretty much left alone until the early 1800’s when Russian fur traders discovered the thousands of seals who resided there and virtually wiped the seals out. The slaughter was so bad that the population dwindled from an annual kill of 40,000 to just 54 by the 1830’s. It wasn’t just seals who lived there but millions of sea going birds, in particular gulls and Murres. For whatever reason, California had no chickens in the mid-19th century, so when someone discovered that Murre eggs, an egg the size of a softball, could be used in place of chicken eggs in baking, there was a stampede to collect eggs and sell them in San Francisco. (The eggs were not any good for omelets or plain as they had a distinctly fishy taste.) Collecting the eggs was not easy on the slippery, guano-covered mountain sides and scalp wounds from gull attacks were common as was death from slipping off the side of the mountains.

The Farallons were the site of the first lighthouse (1853) along the California coast, and desperately needed as shipping traffic increased for the Gold Rush. The lighthouse had to be built twice. The first time they discovered the architect had measured wrongly and the Fresnel lens did not fit, so the building had to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, not an easy task since bricks had to be hauled up the mountain manually. Manning the lighthouse was a lonely business: the weather was usually terrible and the conditions miserable, not to mention antagonism from the Farallon Egg Company which insisted it had claim to the island, a claim not recognized by the government.

One could argue that Casey does not pursue with enough vigor the relationship between the animals and the scientists who study them. She does spend a lot of the book examining the relationships between the scientists themselves. Many reviewers have complained about her infatuation and overemphasis on the people. I like books about people’s idiosyncrasies (and Casey, herself, has many, writing of them self-deprecatingly) and this book has a nice balance of scientific information, geography, and characters.

SPOILER: The last third of the book has engendered considerable criticism. The tone changes and the focus is more on Casey herself than the animals. I quote at length from a review in ScienceBlogs: "It made me wonder if the untold obsession was on the part of the "shark guys" since they inexplicably risked their careers to invite a silly, superstitious drama queen into their midst on the islands -- illegally. Curiously, Casey does such a poor job developing the scientists' personalities beyond describing their perfect muscle tone and passion for surfing that Pyle and Anderson were sadly interchangeable throughout the entire account -- like furniture, actually." Perhaps a bit harsh, but Casey is unsparing of herself, too. (Ref: )

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