Books

SHARK DREAMS

One woman’s obsessive pursuit of the great white

Brian Bethune June 20 2005
Books

SHARK DREAMS

One woman’s obsessive pursuit of the great white

Brian Bethune June 20 2005

SHARK DREAMS

Books

BRIAN BETHUNE

One woman’s obsessive pursuit of the great white

THE RECORDED ATTACKS average nearly one a day, usually decapitations accomplished by a single bite, after which a headless seal—sometimes weighing over 200 kg—will bob in the ocean while spraying a brilliant geyser of blood. Soon the hungry great white shark comes back for more, closely observed by fascinated scientists—if they manage to get close in time. The humans seek old acquaintances, sharks they’ve followed for a decade or longer. Maybe the killer will be one of “the Sisterhood,” an alpha female like Betty or Cadillac, each of them over 17 feet long and seven or eight feet wide. Or perhaps a “smaller” 13or 14-foot

male like Bitehead or Cal Ripfin, who was named by a baseball-loving shark expert after Cal lost a chunk of his dorsal fin trying to steal a morsel from a sister.

Just another autumn day in the 415 area code, as Susan Casey details in The Devil’s Teeth (Fenn), her extraordinary book about sharks and the people who study them. The Farallón Islands, home from September through November to perhaps the world’s densest gathering of great whites, lie only 43 km west of the Golden Gate Bridge—actually, by a quirk of California zoning, within San Francisco city limits. It’s one wild suburb (the title of Casey’s book refers to a sailors’ nickname for the islands, and not, as a reader might first assume, to the two-inch teeth in the mouths of great whites). The 10 tiny islets, battered by fierce storms, are ringed by sheer granite cliffs and treacherous, guano-splattered rocks. They offer one of the most hostile environments on Earth. For humans, that is. A U.S. national wildlife refuge since 1969, the Farallones are chock-a-block with 200,000 screaming seabirds and carpeted with a feast of shark food: seals of all kinds.

In the 19th century, the islands’ accessibility led to a bizarre human history sometimes as murderous as the natural one. Sealers practically wiped out the mammalian population, followed closely by the so-called eggers who raided the nesting seabirds almost into extinction. The eggers fought each other for decades, sometimes in pitched battles, and government lighthouse keepers as well. But humans finally left the islands when the

lighthouses were automated after the Second World War, and the Farallones began to fade from San Francisco’s awareness.

That probably explains what happened there in October 2002. A well-meaning group who had nursed back to health a pair of injured sea lions named Swissy and eDog thought the Farallones would be a good place to release them. Swissy splashed happily in the water “for, oh, 30 seconds,” writes Casey with her customary sardonic touch, until a 16-foot male shark bit him in half. Swissy wasn’t particularly unlucky, other than in his benefactors’ deficient grasp of local conditions: Casey calculates that entering Farallón water during the fall means a 50-50 chance of meeting a great white. (And eDog did survive—afterwards he was spotted in San Francisco Bay, presumably after swimming there as fast as his little flippers would take him.)

Casey does a superb job of summing up the state of knowledge about the shark (an animal that predates trees) and the information that 15 years of undisturbed Farallón study have provided. There’s still a lot to learn. How long do great whites live? Given that they arrive off the islands already sexually mature (11 or 12 years old), and that some individuals have been coming for more than a decade, 30 years seems a minimum. Where do they mate, when and how often? The Farallones provide clues—the males come annually but the females only every second year. And when the sisters do show up, they often have fresh bites around their heads. It’s reasonable to guess those are related to

Attacks, often decapitations, averaged one a day on Casey’s fall visits

mating; after all, as Casey says, “they don’t have hands, so they have to hang on somehow.” How social are they? Some of the males have been together for a decade: do great whites acknowledge relationships, do they have friends}

In the past few years, a radio transmitter tagging program has begun to answer some of those questions, as well as the intriguing issue of just how smart—and how toughgreat whites are. In October 1997, two orcas killed a 12-foot male shark named Jerry Garcia—he had originally appeared two years earlier, just after the Grateful Dead guitarist passed away—by flipping him on his back and pinning him there until he drowned. One of the orcas then swam around for a while with Jerry sticking out of her mouth, rather like a wrestler circling the ring holding a defeated opponent over his head. She then ate him. The other great whites seemed to desert the area soon after; intriguing, thought the scientists, but not conclusively linked.

But when it happened again, in November 2000, many of the sharks had been tagged. After a pod of orcas shredded an unknown shark, scattering “pieces of tissue in a giant slick,” Casey reports, every Farallón great white bolted within hours. One hightailed it as far as Hawaii. Not very good for the great white’s image as the ocean’s iiber-predator, perhaps, but a reaction that indicates a level of intelligence and coordination many have been reluctant to credit it with.

PETER PYLE AKIRA RUIZ

The absorbing natural history is only half of The Devil’s Teeth. Like the sharks, those drawn to study them, especially under such harsh conditions, have their own motives and compulsions. That very much includes Susan Casey. By her own account, the Torontoborn development editor for Time Inc., now 38, has been fascinated by what lies under the water since childhood. A recurring dream—almost a nightmare—would have her floating at night, surrounded by large fish she couldn’t see clearly. A BBC documentary on the Farallones, which Casey saw in 1998, left her determined to get there somehow: “How often do you have the chance to step inside your own dream?”

Brief visits in 2000 and 2001 barely whetted her appetite, although they did cement a friendship with a kindred obsessive spirit, Farallones biologist Peter Pyle, a prominent ornithologist who had turned himself into a shark expert. Pyle was worried about what

was brewing behind the scenes of the great white project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service was getting uneasy about liability issues and harassed by shark-tour operators who were beginning to show up, chumming the water to attract sharks to their cage-enclosed paying customers. Then the government announced that “boat-based work” would be prohibited as of December 2004. It seemed like the end for Casey.

But Pyle was as much a natural-born rule breaker as she was, and when he came up with a scheme that would bring her back in 2003, Casey eagerly agreed. They borrowed a yacht and anchored it off Southeast Farallón, outside government jurisdiction. Casey lived on it. Things soon started to go wrong, from a plague of kelp flies (whose preferred habitat is the inside of a seal’s anus) to a non-functioning toilet. Then things went very wrong: a never-explained “lake” of blood was sloshed across the deck when Casey emerged one morning, and bad weather threatened. Pyle had already allowed the increasingly spooked Casey to spend a night on the island, strictly against regulations, and when a ferocious storm began to brew, he let her on again.

Just as well, for her sake. While she was on land, the yacht was swept to sea. Despite Casey pouring $15,000 of her own money into the search, the boat wasn’t found for more than a month. During that time, the owner posted a reward, and Casey’s illegal presence became known. Pyle lost his job. “Everything,” Casey writes, “had become unravelled, undone.”

When asked what she now thinks of her actions at the Farallones, Casey acknowledges her regrets. “It weighs heavily on me. If I could change things, I would. But I’m not going to put on the big hair shirt. I didn’t do anything wrong; things went wrong.” Does she think any scientist who read her account would be disinclined to ever let a journalist within a mile of his work? “No, not at all. Peter had his reasons for helping me. He knew the project was winding down. And most scientists—however cool their work—don’t have the ability to tell the story of it in a compelling fashion. I think an intelligent scientist would recognize this.”

Compelling is the word for The Devil’s Teeth. But the brief human tempest it describes, now over and done with, can barely hold a candle to the eternal drama of rock and ocean, shark and seal. lifl