by Susan Casey
304 pages, Owl Books
Review by Pat Black
Susan Casey watched a documentary made by the BBC in the mid-1990s about great white sharks, and became obsessed with the giant predators. A few years later, she wrote a book about it.
I saw the same film. April 1995. Sir David Attenborough narrating. It was amazing. I’m gutted that you can’t get it on DVD or Blu-Ray – god knows I’ve looked.
Back in those merry analogue days, I taped it on VHS, and watched it again and again (re-record, not fade away…). Great white sharks had been filmed many times before from within cages, but this hour-long special went that bit further – following the phenomenal fish into the depths with state-of-the-art remote cameras.
Some of the shots captured are gold-standard natural history film-making. One, taken from a float in the shape of a seal, shows a 16-foot fish rushing to the surface like a torpedo, in full attack mode. I still see this footage popping up here and there – most recently in an online prank where people walk into a room facing a giant screen… and then oh my god, giant shark attacks!
Other images revealed the fish breaching, leaping clean out of the water with luckless seals clamped between their jaws. I’m not sure if this was the first time the “Air Jaws” phenomenon had been filmed, but it was certainly the first time I’d seen it. It made the idea of Bruce the shark stage-diving the deck of the Orca seem less fantastic.
The documentary featured the work of scientists Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, who had spent years studying these animals near a chain of jagged rocks around thirty miles off the coast of California called the Farallones. These serrated peaks are inhospitable to the point of murder. You can just about see the toothy outcrops from the Golden Gate Bridge, but the proximity is deceptive; although surfers take to the waves not too far away, these are dangerous waters.
It’s incredibly tough to land a ship on the Farallones, for a start – far easier to turn your vessel into matchsticks against the cliffs. From there, if you do decide to take a dip, you face the added danger of the sharks, who congregate in the area every autumn. We know that these creatures don’t want to hunt humans, and rarely do – but they have done in the past, and the rarity of such events would come as no comfort should you have your legs bitten off, accidentally or not.
I want them protected, and I love them, but they are very dangerous animals. This is their brute allure. Would you take your child swimming knowing one was nearby? If not, why not?
These are the big buggers – straight-up, no-messing Jaws-a-likes. Some of the Sisterhood, as the giant females are known, are thought to reach as much as 22ft in length. We only know this because the wounds found on the body of a surfer who had his entire chest cavity excised in one bite corresponded to a fish approximately that size – going by the old “bite radius crap” Hooper was talking about in Jaws. Although it’s fair to say the 16-18 footers would still give you a nasty wee nip.
Casey, a senior editor at Time Magazine, attaches herself to Pyle and Anderson’s research community on the Pacific rock, and is soon heading out in 8ft boats in heavy seas to record the activity of 16ft sharks. Go figure.
She starts off with a shark encounter straight out of Hollywood, as she watches one of the fish surge towards her boat. But this book isn’t so much about sharks as it is the Farallones themselves. There’s plenty of sharkage, but it’s not the main component.
The author looks at the curious history of these unlovely islands, from their discovery through to their unlikely status during the “Egg Wars” of the mid-19th century, when prospectors fought among themselves for control of the then-lucrative guillemot eggs trade. (To begin with, there were no chickens or egg industry in California. But which came first?)
The author also looks at the history of the research group’s dwelling-place, a musty, wind-blasted old house of dubious plumbing. Naturally, there are ghost stories attached to the property, and Casey is given an extreme case of the willies one night.
The Farallones don’t seem to like Casey very much – she’s dive-bombed by gulls and other birds, and clattered by the sea as she makes her way up ancient staircases carved into the rock. Later, she hires out a huge sailing boat so that she can remain at anchor during Shark Season in the autumn, supposedly helping Peter and Scot out.
Problem being, Casey isn’t much of a sailor, and the weather is awful. Hiring the vessel is a means to an end, allowing her to sidestep some strict environmental protection laws governing visitors to the islands.
“I’ve never been a big fan of rules,” she states.
Neither are weather systems. Several times, Peter and Scot come to the rescue, berthing up alongside the moored boat, as the heavy seas threaten to snap the anchor and carry Casey off to the middle of the ocean, or hurl her against the rocks like a toddler in a tantrum.
You get the impression that the two veteran researchers - solitary men who spent much of their lives cloistered on a wild scrub of land haunted by giant predators because they enjoy it - tolerate the author, but only just.
I was reminded of wee boys running around at a wedding, joined at their play by a little girl maybe a year or two younger. This becomes less of a wry observation when the final twist of The Devil’s Teeth is revealed.
Casey briefly sketches other researchers stationed on the island over the seasons, but the most interesting tertiary character was Ron Elliott, an abalone diver. This guy gets into a wetsuit and dives down into the Red Triangle every other day to bring up the seabed-dwelling delicacy – a sea snail that commands a hefty price on the Japanese market. Ron has the whole of the Red Triangle to himself. Reason being, giant killer sharks regularly come around to carry out spot-checks on his business, and literally no-one else is crazy enough to do it.
Imagine that, every working day: seagoing titans with butcher knives for teeth, broad as a minibus, grinning at you in the gloom. And that’s just the ones you can see. No-one can stop them; and no-one can help you.
At time of writing, Ron is still unchomped.
There is something of a death wish in people who wish to get so close to these animals. As soon as the scientists spot seals and sea lions being transformed into gushing red chunks, it’s action stations – they drop everything, and head out to sea to tag and identify the sharks, and record their behaviour. There’s inherent danger in simply going to sea off the Farallones – you have to be winched off a cliff in an 8ft boat before you interrupt a creature twice as big and twice as broad as your conveyance at its repast. You could spend all day worrying about causing indigestion in a ludicrously big fish, only to get tipped off the boat and head-first into some rocks, while an audience of gulls shriek with glee.
Peter Pyle expresses a desire to go surfing there, noting a sweet eight-foot wave. Bear in mind that a big part of this man’s job is to entice the sharks by dragging a surfboard across the surface of the water, in order to trigger an attack.
Death is all around in the Farallones – even in humans’ early interaction with the place, there was conflict and homicide, tragedies, disease outbreaks, famine. Even today, tensions can arise. There’s something in the very geology of the place, snarling at you among dark, rough waters, that warns humans to keep away. When they’re there, the researchers can feel as trapped as scientists stuck in the Antarctic for the sunless winter. Lots of complications can arise, even among people who feel they might be well-prepared for isolation. There are instances of people who have arrived on the island as a couple, only for one of them to leave the other for a fellow researcher across the hall. That’d be a fun old breakfast table.
The place would be a first-rate setting for a horror story (makes entry in Someday I’ll Write These notebook). Casey captures the feel of the Farallones beautifully.
Fun facts provided by this book: when a whale exhales, the spectacular geyser it emits absolutely stinks, the foulest fishy breath imaginable.
Also, the sea just off the coast of San Francisco is stuffed with red hot nuclear waste. The US navy took a ship which was so close to the first mushroom clouds that its plating caught fire, crammed it with barrels of nasty material, and sunk it a few hundred feet under the ocean. No-one knows exactly what’s down there, how toxic it is, and how much it has already affected the food chain.
And thirdly, when they attack, great white sharks attempt to decapitate seals. They’ve expended so much energy in the initial surge from below that they need to be as sure of a kill as they can, and a precision strike is the best way to achieve that. In many of these “mistaken identity” attacks on humans – single bite; realise mistake; let go - that is one big reason for fatalities. As if the idea wasn’t horrific enough. I don’t think even Bruce the Shark was that cold. Just one extra thing for you to think about, if you go surfing.
This book has a shocking ending. But it has nothing to do with jump-scares or nasty bites, or indeed fish of any size, and no-one is killed or injured. It does have something to do with misfortune at sea and no small amount of human folly. The entire book seems like a fool’s errand given the consequences of human interference in Peter and Scot’s research nirvana.
The author comes across as contrite, but only just. Her book leaves certain big questions hanging. I hope justice and common sense prevailed. In any case, I want Peter and Scot to know that their research made a huge impression on people, and they were part of one of the best natural history documentaries ever made.