The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks by Susan Casey, Henry Holt and Company, 2006, 304 pages, $14, paperback.
Susan Casey, a magazine writer and editor from New York City, describes in detail her experiences with a handful of shark researchers at the Farallon Islands, spits of jagged, storm-beaten rock 28 miles west of San Francisco that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages.
Great white sharks congregate at the Farallones each fall, but for years no one knew why. Back in the 1980s, a top marine scientist and the ornithologists who kept tabs on the islands’ birds hatched a plan to determine what the sharks were up to. One of them was Peter Pyle.
He’s a central character in Casey’s book, reason enough for anyone interested in birds to read it. Upon his arrival at Southeast Farallon from the mainland one day, Casey writes: “Everyone gathered at the landing to greet him; for young ornithologists, Peter stopping by was like John Coltrane suddenly walking into a class of saxophone students. Each of them had a well-thumbed copy of his book Identification Guide to North American Birds, also known as the bible of bird banding.”
Sharks are at the heart of Casey’s book, but birds make regular appearances, because at the Farallones, they’re everywhere. A rotating crew of biologists and interns share 65-acre Southeast Farallon with 250,000 seabirds, including murres, puffins, auklets, cormorants, and the big bullies — Western Gulls. We meet a biologist who thinks Ashy Storm-Petrels are “absolutely incredible,” and Casey tells the sad history of the eggers who plundered the islands a century earlier.
Through it all, the story is one of dedicated, hard-working people in an inhospitable place doing their best to understand wildlife. — M.M.