Hailing from Toronto and living in New York City, Time Inc. development editor Susan Casey unexpectedly becomes fascinated with great white sharks after watching a BBC documentary. And so she hooks up with a shark research project on the Farallon Islands where great white sharks hang out. The Farallon Islands, or Farallones, so happen to be one corner of the so-called "Red Triangle," an area of the Pacific infamous for its high number of great white shark attacks. It's called the red triangle because of the bright red pools of blood marking the surface when a seal or sea lion falls prey to a great white. The other two points of the triangle are the Big Sur region south of Monterey and Bodega Bay north of San Francisco. Yes, the Farallon Islands are less than 30 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet, they are by all accounts one of the least hospitable places on this planet.
This is where the Shark Project is headquartered, and this is where Susan Casey goes upon negotiating considerable bureaucratic redtape. In the process she falls in love with the barren, forsaken place that tests the endurance and nerves even of the hardiest souls. Casey, facing even bigger odds, returns for a less straight-forward, more extended, and definitely very dramatic stay on a (ornery) 60-foot yacht, all by herself.
Devil's Teeth is not a scientific or research book, and Casey is a journalist and editor and not a marine biologist. So the book reads like a very extended magazine feature, outlining the issue (the great white sharks who during "shark season" hang out around the Farallones), the location and history (at some point over a 100 people lived here and there was even a school, and the place is a birds' paradise), the people (a small group of researchers and interns as well as affiliated parties such as the sole remaining commercial diver and some pesky shark and whale watching boats), and, of course, the sharks (which show up for fairly reqular and always dramatic attacks, but remain elusive).
Despite this essentially being a long, and very well written article about an ultimate adventure, we do learn a good deal about great white sharks. They hunt by day. They have good vision and are visual predators. They hunt prey with caution and a plan. They are actually black and only the underside is white. They can be 20 feet long and weigh 5,000 pounds. Most attacks are during high tide. They are one of only four warm-blooded shark species among about 370. They are all individuals with personalities and quirks. Females are much larger than males. Great whites can dive down to almost 2,500 feet. They fatten themselves up, then return much thinner. They have been around in the current form about 11 million years. They've been known to lose a fight against orcas. Their teeth are embedded in cartilage and not bone, and they lose thousands over their still unknown lifetime. They can leap out of the water.
Casey weaves together a fascinating account of life on and around the island, of its history and present, of the meticulously recorded shark sightings, of the hardship and dangers in a desolate place that shares a zip code with San Francisco. Her writing style is that of a professional writer and editor, smooth, easy-going, with a combination of spellbinding storytelling and self-deprecating humor. She's a girl she never lets us forget, she notices muscles, good looks, killer smiles and describes all the things she can't do and rather leaves to the guys. She even has a bit of fear of the supernatural. Yet, this girl has guts, confidence, and passion. She's competent and she never gives up. She seems on even keel even when her boat, and life, is not. The story has a mixed ending that may raise questions about the appropriateness of such journalistic adventures and has ruffled some feathers, but the book itself is great. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer