MC reader: ‘Devil’s Teeth’ by Susan Casey

(Photo by Alex Quesenberry)
Casey documents her adventures on the Farallon Islands in ‘Devil’s Teeth.’

At this point in the semester, I always look back fondly on the summertime. Most of us don’t have regular classes then, some of us return home for a few months and we probably spend some extra time in front of the TV. During the summer, one of my favorites weeks of the year occurs: Shark Week on Discovery Channel. I find sharks to be fascinating creatures.

If you have seen even just a few moments of a Shark Week special, particularly those on the great white shark, you cannot deny that sharks have a captivating quality on screen. At the end of Shark Week this year, I found myself wanting to know more about sharks. As usual, I turned to books in order to discover more information.

Writer Susan Casey has an incredible career as a journalist and a passion for great white sharks, which was fostered by a BBC special on the animal. The television special inspired her to do an article on sharks, and this desire led her to the Farallon Islands off the coast of California, where a team of scientists operated the Great White Shark Project. In “Devil’s Teeth,” Casey draws you into her experience on the island right off the bat with a shark attack on a seal. It is what we typically expect of sharks, but Casey reveals much more before the book is finished. Sharks are fantastically mysterious creatures that scientists do not know a whole lot about. They have strange migratory patterns, combative and dominant behaviors and the ocean is their playground.

All of these enigmatic factors combined make the scientists’ jobs a great deal harder. However, Casey quickly uses her words to demonstrate the joy that the scientists gain from their job of studying sharks. They, like Casey, feel drawn to the sharks. Casey attempts to sum up the quality that draws people like her and the viewers of Shark Week to sharks, saying, “Their otherness is what both compels us and scares the pants off us.” Sharks are not the only intimidating things Casey faces on her journey.

The title, “Devil’s Teeth,” actually refers to the Farallon Islands and not the shark’s most identifying and deadly feature. The islands earned this nickname from sailors who made a point to steer clear of the shark-infested waters and jagged terrain. Scientists are the only people allowed to populate the island, and they only are permitted to during what are known as “shark season” months. The only standing buildings on the main island are two homes, only one of which is inhabitable, and the lighthouse that stands above a treacherous climb.

These are the conditions that Casey voluntarily sticks herself in, just to have a chance of learning more about sharks. Even making the journey from the boat to the island is a trial. Casey must time her departure perfectly to make the jump to land without spearing herself on rocks or dropping into a shark’s hunting grounds. She includes various tales of the islands’ mysterious past, full of ghost stories and mentions of rare animals. Of course, sharks are the main feature. Casey manages to capture beautifully the movements of sharks that can usually only be appreciated visually.

Through Casey, the scientists offer a sympathetic view of sharks, complete with names and different personalities. Some of the scientists’ favorites are a big female named Betty who enjoys destroying the surfboard decoys they use in hopes of luring sharks to study. There’s also T-Nose, a small male that seems to have a permanent smile on his face. “Devil’s Teeth” also serves a purpose beyond excellent storytelling. Casey’s multiple trips to the island require further explanations on the threats to the islands, and thus the book takes on an almost activist role.

You will find yourself consistently on Casey’s side in supporting the privacy and funding that the scientists on the Great White Shark Project require in order to protect the enigmatic sharks. If you haven’t realized this already, “Devil’s Teeth” is a work of nonfiction. I know this will turn a lot of people off of the book, but I think you should give this book a chance if you are into animals, especially sharks.

I will say that someone who has a complete aversion to sharks will not like this book since it is all about the creatures. Personally, I enjoy a good nonfiction read, but I know that is not everyone’s cup of tea. Casey does take care to keep her story actively moving, so you do not get too bogged down in scientific facts and jargon.

This is an accessible read at 283 pages, including eight whole pages of pictures of the sharks and islands. For those that find sharks exciting and cool, this is certainly a read you should sink your teeth into.

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