A journalist's obsession brings her to a remote island off the California coast, home to the world's most mysterious and fearsome predators-and the strange band of surfer-scientists who follow them
Susan Casey was in her living room when she first saw the great white sharks of the Farallon Islands, their dark fins swirling around a small motorboat in a documentary. These sharks were the alphas among alphas, some longer than twenty feet, and there were too many to count; even more incredible, this congregation was taking place just twenty-seven miles off the coast of San Francisco.
In a matter of months, Casey was being hoisted out of the early-winter swells on a crane, up a cliff face to the barren surface of Southeast Farallon Island-dubbed by sailors in the 1850s the "devil's teeth." There she joined Scot Anderson and Peter Pyle, the two biologists who bunk down during shark season each fall in the island's one habitable building, a haunted, 135-year-old house spackled with lichen and gull guano. Two days later, she got her first glimpse of the famous, terrifying jaws up close and she was instantly hooked; her fascination soon yielded to obsession-and an invitation to return for a full season. But as Casey readied herself for the eight-week stint, she had no way of preparing for what she would find among the dangerous, forgotten islands that have banished every campaign for civilization in the past two hundred years.
The Devil's Teeth is a vivid dispatch from an otherworldly outpost, a story of crossing the boundary between society and an untamed place where humans are neither wanted nor needed.
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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
It was a BBC documentary on great white sharks visiting California's Farallon Islands that turned Susan Casey from an editor of adventure and outdoors stories in such magazines as Outside to a journalist obsessed with an outdoors adventure of her own. In her Amazon.com interview, Casey recalls the fascinations and the follies of her time with the sharks in the Farallones and discusses everything from the ethics of adventure journalism to the stunning silence and size of nature's perfect predators. And in her answers to the Significant Seven (the seven questions we like to ask every author), she reveals her admiration for both Joseph Mitchell and Johnny Knoxville (once you've read her book, both choices seem appropriate).
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)
"A thoroughly researched and well-written piece of literature that raises hairs as well as tickling funny bones, THE DEVIL'S TEETH artfully reveals what lurks in the shadows of the mysterious great white and the people obsessed with them." -- Linda Greenlaw, Author of THE HUNGRY OCEAN and ALL FISHERMEN ARE LIARS
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