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The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession…

The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's… (2005)

by Susan Casey

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Freaking AWESOME. Susan's experiences suck the reader right into the book, & the way she writes, you feel like you are right there with her. It's exciting, funny, makes you smile, makes you cringe, & makes you go ow WOW, I never knew that! This book was just COOL. It made me want to see them too! I was SO glad she included photos from the history of the islands, as well as color pics of the recent activity that she saw. They brought the book to vivid life ( )
  Lisa.Johnson.James | Apr 10, 2014 |
What an amazing book! The Devil's Teeth gives you a whole new point of view of not only these wonderful sharks, but also of the scientist who daily put their lives on the line to study these creatures. This book is so well written, you feel like you are right there with them on the boat, almost felt seasick even!! Access to these island's is not easily granted, but Susan Casey did an amazing job at sharing her insider access. A book that I will never forget! ( )
  CocacolaGirl | Mar 13, 2014 |
This book loses steam midway through but I liked Casey's work to keep it interesting till the end. I like shark stories and the history of the California coast (Farallon Islands) is interesting to a select few, like myself. She expends most of her energy on descriptions of everything from the terrain, working scientists, and her fear of the deep. I'm fascinated by sharks and whales. I'd heard that sharks lurked in the San Francisco bay but this tells why that may be. The book deals with all sorts of shark sightings but focuses on great whites. Orcas kill great whites, Casey says, by working in tandem and drowning them. I don't know if that is true, but it gives me some homework to do. ( )
  sacredheart25 | Dec 13, 2013 |
The jaws of a megaladon could open so wide that a modern quarter-horse could stand upright in them and not nick his head on teeth that were estimated to have been over 7 inches long. The ancestor of the great white shark, they survived at least four mass extinctions and evolved into a perfect predator.

Great whites have “an aura of gentleness” when they are not feeding. That’s not an assertion I would personally like to test out. Then again, perhaps our genes have an innate fear of dark things that inhabit alien environments, and perhaps our genetic remembrance is a remnant of our ancestors flight from the seas and the megaladon.

There are many hundreds of shark species, yet only four have been known to ingest humans: the Bull shark, White Tip, Tiger, and Great White. Not indiscriminate foragers, contrary to popular lore, great white eyes discriminate and studies have shown they will ignore shapes that don’t resemble one of their favorite meal: seals. A surfboard resembles a seal. Great White congregate around the Farallon Islands and it’s there that Casey went over a period of years to investigate the scientists studying the sharks, seals and birds who congregate in great numbers on these remote and forbidding islands located just west of San Francisco. The researchers came to recognize many of the sharks as individuals with different personality traits: some were clowns, some peevish, others consistently aggressive. They did not engage in the distinctive “feeding frenzy” long associated with sharks, rather they formed a sort of buffet line with the females having the right-away.

Humans have long had a love-hate relationship with sharks. Some civilizations venerated them; others damned them. While working on Pearl Harbor workers discovered large pens that archaeologists determined had been used for gladiatorial-like combat between sharks and local natives. (“ Pearl Harbor was the home of the shark goddess Ka'ahupahau and her brother (or son) Kahiʻuka who lived in caves at the entrance to the harbor, rich in pearl oysters, and who guarded the entrance against sharks. The construction of a Navy dry dock starting in 1919 enraged the local populace who believed the gods’ caves were being destroyed.) I decided to do a little fact-checking and found this entry in a book entitled Maneaters: Hawaiian kings threw living people into specially built enclosures containing sharks, and gladiatorial contests were staged between people and sharks that had been starved. The enclosure was a semi-circle of lava stones enclosing an area of a bout 4 acres at the edge of the sea. There was an opening to the sea where sharks could be lured in. During a contest the entrance was closed off. The gladiator was equipped with nothing more than a shark-tooth knife - a stick with a shark’s tooth at the end. When the shark rushed in for the attack, the gladiator had to swim quickly below and try to slice open the shark’s stomach with the single tooth.

Casey was granted a week-long permission on the island, ostensibly to study the mating habits of the hundreds of thousands of bird who reside there, some of whom were so eager to peck the back of one’s head that helmets were mandatory. This was at the time of massive interest in sharks, so everyone wanted to go to the Farallon’s and those researchers on the islands were under a great deal of pressure as they were seen as taking away the right of hordes of tourists who wanted their chance to see a great white disembowel some other creature. Her disingenuousness and mendacity about the real purpose for the trip lead to consequences for the shark research project.

Getting to the Farallons, home to numerous wrecks and lost ships, was hardly a walk in the park as the 27 miles from the Golden Gate, tended to be often nasty and even the most experienced captains had stories to tell of close calls. Everyone assumed there was nothing to it so they didn’t bring the bare necessities and the weather could change rapidly.

The Farallons is all about death, animals killing each other constantly and that can have a weird effect on those who work there. It drives many away almost immediately. Food supplies are not always delivered regularly, relationships develop, others break up, sometimes one is the cause of the other. And there is the constant noise of the birds, bird shit all over everything and scientists have to wear flea collars on their ankles to keep the bird vermin off them. Forget wearing any clothes you wish to keep.

Nicknamed the “Devil’s Teeth” because of the way they look, the Farallon Islands have an interesting pedigree. They were pretty much left alone until the early 1800’s when Russian fur traders discovered the thousands of seals who resided there and virtually wiped the seals out. The slaughter was so bad that the population dwindled from an annual kill of 40,000 to just 54 by the 1830’s. It wasn’t just seals who lived there but millions of sea going birds, in particular gulls and Murres. For whatever reason, California had no chickens in the mid-19th century, so when someone discovered that Murre eggs, an egg the size of a softball, could be used in place of chicken eggs in baking, there was a stampede to collect eggs and sell them in San Francisco. (The eggs were not any good for omelets or plain as they had a distinctly fishy taste.) Collecting the eggs was not easy on the slippery, guano-covered mountain sides and scalp wounds from gull attacks were common as was death from slipping off the side of the mountains.

The Farallons were the site of the first lighthouse (1853) along the California coast, and desperately needed as shipping traffic increased for the Gold Rush. The lighthouse had to be built twice. The first time they discovered the architect had measured wrongly and the Fresnel lens did not fit, so the building had to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch, not an easy task since bricks had to be hauled up the mountain manually. Manning the lighthouse was a lonely business: the weather was usually terrible and the conditions miserable, not to mention antagonism from the Farallon Egg Company which insisted it had claim to the island, a claim not recognized by the government.

One could argue that Casey does not pursue with enough vigor the relationship between the animals and the scientists who study them. She does spend a lot of the book examining the relationships between the scientists themselves. Many reviewers have complained about her infatuation and overemphasis on the people. I like books about people’s idiosyncrasies (and Casey, herself, has many, writing of them self-deprecatingly) and this book has a nice balance of scientific information, geography, and characters.

SPOILER: The last third of the book has engendered considerable criticism. The tone changes and the focus is more on Casey herself than the animals. I quote at length from a review in ScienceBlogs: "It made me wonder if the untold obsession was on the part of the "shark guys" since they inexplicably risked their careers to invite a silly, superstitious drama queen into their midst on the islands -- illegally. Curiously, Casey does such a poor job developing the scientists' personalities beyond describing their perfect muscle tone and passion for surfing that Pyle and Anderson were sadly interchangeable throughout the entire account -- like furniture, actually." Perhaps a bit harsh, but Casey is unsparing of herself, too. (Ref: http://scienceblogs.com/bookclub/2009/03/the_devils_teeth_by_susan_case.php )

More info at: http://www.calacademy.org/webcams/farallones/ ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
I really liked this book a lot. Though it was uneven, it was still utterly fascinating. I learned a lot about great white sharks and the Farallon Islands. I was captivated by the stories Casey told about the sharks and the biologists who love them. I was less enamored of the endless suffering Casey endured on a nearly derelict sailboat at anchor near the Farallons. Very worth reading. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
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Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above all living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. [Edward O. Wilson]
Every angel is terrifying. [Rainer Maria Rilke]
To my family: Ron, Angela, Bob, and Bill, who taught me to love the wild things.
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The killing took place at dawn and as usual it was a decapitation, accomplished by a single vicious swipe.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805080112, Paperback)

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)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:44 -0400)

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Presents the author's firsthand account of her stay on the Farallon Islands--in the shark infested waters thirty miles west of San Francisco--and includes information on shark behavior and scientists who study them.

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