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Now in Paperback: Demon Fish

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks

by Juliet Eilperin

Anchor Books, 2012

Sharks are much in the news this summer, for the only reason sharks are ever in the news: they’ve been scaring the crap out of humans. First there was the group of young people river-fishing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina who accidentally filmed a big bull shark lunging out of the water to eat their catch, giving even the most jaded viewer a shiver as they realize that thing was in the water all along in that popular swimming spot (the video is closing in on 10,000,000 views on YouTube). Then there were scattered sightings of very large sharks cruising just offshore of Chatham on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. Less than a month later, a man was bitten in the foot by a shark off the beach at Truro, on the Cape. Just this morning, surfer was mauled by a shark off the shore of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. And most dramatically of all, in mid-July off the coast of western Australia, a popular young surfer was bitten in half by what witnesses described as a “massive” great white shark.

In every one of these recent attacks, the humans in question were at fault – they were paddling around in the same zones as sharks’ favorite prey, seals, and and in most cases, they were zipped up in black wetsuits. In other words, if they’d only put on rubber seal-snouts, even the seals would have mistaken them for seals – and so they were attacked the seals’ #1, extremely attentive predator. This hasn’t stopped various humans – including one or two idiotic elected officials in Australia – from talking about holding some hunting-orgies to ‘cull’ sharks, as if the enormously growing demand for shark fin soup weren’t doing a horrific job of that already.

As Washington Post nature-reporter Juliet Eilperin hopelessly points out in her book Demon Fish, sharks don’t target humans – they just zero in on whatever’s thrashing in the water. Since sharks tend to make their decisions with their teeth, those thrashing things stand a good chance of getting bitten.Since big sharks tend to be very powerful, even an exploratory bite can cause a large amount of damage (the standard conservationist line used to be that sharks dislike the taste of humans because they seem skinny and fat-free when compared to seals; since the average adult American in 2012 is a whopping 30 percent fatter than the average adult American in 1962, sharks might be forgiven for changing their collective minds on the subject). The fact that humanity’s relentless, almost crazed deep-trawling for ‘seafood’ has rendered vast tracts of ocean utterly lifeless isn’t helping the situation, of course – it’s tough to be an apex predator when mankind is busy removing the rest of the pyramid.

Eilperin dutifully recites the statistics we’ve all heard in some variation many times before:

Put in a broader context, shark attacks fail to represent a serious threat to humans. OF all known shark species, only 6 percent are known to attack humans. According to [shark expert George] Burgess, sharks kill between four and five people a year worldwide. To put that in context, you are more likely to die from lightning, a bee sting, or an elephant attack than from a shark’s bite. On average, more than forty times as many Americans seek hospital treatment for accidents involving Christmas tree ornaments than incidents involving sharks.

Eilperin can’t escape the fact John Williams never wrote a haunting musical motif about a rogue Christmas tree ornament, and so our intrepid author faces Peter Benchley’s zeitgeist-changing 1974 novel Jaws head-on, as it were (both the US hardcover and paperback editions of her book feature head-on views of sharks, although who on Earth could prefer the bland paperback design and photo to the mesmerizing effect of the hardcover?). From a purely literary point of view, it’s refreshing to see a nature-write give Benchley’s book its due – it’s too often simply cited as the start of a mania and the blueprint for Steven Spielberg’s smash hit movie, but Eilperin rightly reminds us that the book was a a pre-movie best-seller for some good reasons: “Benchley’s book is both more sophisticated – it explores the sharp class divisions that help define summer vacation towns – and less frightening than the movie that stemmed from it.”

Eilperin hits all the highlights you’d expect from a popular shark book. The multiple shark attacks that terrorized New Jersey in 1916 are invoked, as is the massive days-long feeding frenzy that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (made famous for a new generation by Robert Shaw’s haunting monologue in Jaws). Our author goes back in time a bit, too, relating the details of “one of the most famous shark attack scenes of all time,” when young Brook Watson was attacked by a shark in 1749 in the harbor of Havana, Cuba – an attack immortalized in 1778 by John Singleton Copley in his painting Watson and the Shark (one version of which hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts). Some of the details will fascinate even readers familiar with the painting:

When he [Watson, who survived] was crowned [sic] a baronet more than half a century later, Watson asked for a coat of arms alluding to his attack. The design includes the Latin motto Scuto Divino (“Under God’s Protection”) and features Neptune, the god of the sea, using a trident to repel an attacking shark. The upper-left corner of the shield even shows the part of his right leg he lost as a teenager.

The background is all fascinating, as are the dozens of interviews Eilperin conducts with a wide range of people involved in some way with sharks, from eco-tourists to shark-fishermen. And she ends her book on the expected note of strained optimism, telling her readers that although some shark species and populations have suffered a 99 percent reduction in little over a dozen years, rebounds are possible if the nations of the world act with firm, united resolve to implement an indefinite ban on shark fishing in order to save the species. Since humans can’t work together to implement a carbon-emission ban in order to save their own species, such an act of extra-species altruism is every bit as much a fantasy as the human-stalking giant killer shark.

It’s nice to think otherwise, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Demon Fish, for all its zest, isn’t so much a celebration as an extended epitaph.