In two separate pieces Susan Casey talks about her remarkable book The Devil's Teeth in which she reports on her time spent with the Great White Sharks, and the extraordinary people who study them, on the Farallon Islands, just 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco; and about the writing of The Wave - about giant waves and those who hunt them.
Watch a video of Susan Casey and Laird Hamilton discussing The Wave
Susan Casey talks about The Devil's Teeth
You're the development editor for Time Inc. and
previously the editor of Sports Illustrated Women and creative director of
Outside magazine. But the idea for the book did not grow out of an assignment.
What drew you to this story?
As a journalist I'm always trolling for compelling stories, but in this
case, the story came to me. I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico (a truly
land-locked place), working for Outside magazine, and I had developed a raging
case of mononucleosis. As a result, I was spending much more time than usual
lying around, and one day while I was doing just that, I flipped on the TV and
found myself watching the most extraordinary BBC documentary. In the book, I
describe the action onscreen in detail but, in short, I was riveted by the sight
of two men in the tiniest boat, surrounded by great white sharks the size of
minibuses. The scene was surrealthe jagged, ferocious landscape, the black
water, the sheer Hadean ambiance. And then to discover that this alien place was
within San Francisco city limits! I couldn't believe it. Also, Scot and Peter's
vibe was intriguing. They were young and rugged-looking, largely unphased by an
18-foot shark sticking its head into their dinghy. I wanted to know more about
the type of person who could thrive in that situation.
Everything about the Farallones
captivated me, right from the start. It was almost as though the place had
been invented by my subconscious, designed to roll up all the things I likedark
mysteries, inscrutable predators, fierce beauty, deep water, lost history, the
elemental natural world into one story. I was further stunned to discover that
this place had never been captured in any definitive way.
Every year, during the months of September through
November, one of the world's largest and densest congregations of great white
sharks gathers in the waters surrounding the Farallon Islands, just 27 miles off
the coast of San Francisco. And yet virtually no onenot even native San
Franciscans seems to know about this place. Why do so few people know about the
I think about this often. In fact, I lived in Marin
County from 1991-1995 and I didn't know about the Farallones! I'd hike over
Mount Tamalpais down to Stinson Beach, from where you can make out the islands
on a clear day, and I was always curious about what these objects on the horizon
were. But I never met up with anyone who knew the backstory.
Perhaps the obscurity of the islands is due to the fact
that they're usually invisible from the mainland, just far enough offshore to
seem out of reach. It's not easy to get there in a boat, the water is
hellaciously turbulent even on a fair day, and then once you arrive, federal law
prohibits you from going ashore. The islands are a tightly protected National
Wildlife Refuge, within a National Marine Sanctuary. 250,000 seabirds breed on
65-acre Southeast Farallon, and the smell of guano will knock a person back on
his heels. The trip involves a full day on the water, in nausea-making
conditions. And that's when the weather cooperateson many days skippers simply
won't consider making the voyage at all.
Why do we know so little about great white sharks at a
time when technology and science have been able to unravel so many mysteries
about other species?
Bizarrely, in a time when we've managed
to scoop up soil samples from Mars, the ocean is largely unknown to us. By some
estimates, 95% of the aquatic life forms remain undiscovered. Seas cover 71% of
our own planet, and we really don't have a clue as to what's down there. Great
white sharks, among the earth's most majestic creatures, are only one of
The great white is an apex predator, so there are very few
of them out there to begin with. Add their relative rarity to the fact that
they've evolved as ambush hunters; their hunting strategy requires them to
remain unseen. And, of course, the ocean is the perfect place to hide. When
we're in the water, they can see us but we can't easily see them, which is
exactly the kind of situation that great white sharks like.
Although, technology is being utilized and much fascinating
information about this animal has been discovered via the new satellite pop-up
tags. The tags have shown that great white sharks range all over the open ocean.
They're not purely coastal animals, as was previously thought. And the Farallon
Islands are critical to our understanding of the speciesit's the only place on
earth where scientists can consistently observe them behaving naturally. There's
a cluster of them at Southeast Farallon, and the setup is unique, in that
they're close to shore. So it's possible to track their behaviors day after day
from a fixed position.
What is the Farallon White Shark Project and how has
it contributed to what little we know about great white sharks?
The Farallon White Shark Project began in 1987. It was
initiated by David Ainley, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory's head biologist at
the islands. Although the biologists were mainly there to study the fantastic
bird life at Southeast Farallon, they couldn't help but notice the large pools
of blood that would crop up just offshore during the fall. And from time to
time, a scientist would have a close encounter with a massive shark while
landing supplies in a tiny boat. Biologists are, by nature, curious. So they
began to wonder about the sharks, and at first they weren't even sure which
species of shark seemed to be thriving in the Farallon waters. Renowned marine
scientist Dr. Peter Klimley got the ball rolling by starting a shark tracking
study at the islands, assisted by Peter Pyle and, later, Scot Anderson. Klimley
moved onto other research projects, and Pyle and Anderson took the research
forward, adding layer upon layer of observation to their data about this
neighborhood of great white sharks.
At the Farallones, it was discovered that great white
sharks are visual hunters, drawn by the silhouetted shapes of objects on the
surface. Scot Anderson's decoy study was groundbreaking in that it demonstrated
that the sharks would attack a seal-shaped objectlike a surfboardbut that they
shied away from round or square-shaped objects. Among Pyle and Anderson's many
noteworthy discoveries was the fact that the same sharks returned year after
year to the Farallones. They were able to identify over 100 sharks, and chart
their whereabouts around the islands. Astonishingly, some individuals have been
returning every year for 14 years. Sex segregation in great white sharks was
also noted: females, who are dominant, occupy one chunk of the surrounding
waters, while males congregate clear on the other side of the island. Also,
Anderson and Pyle noted, the males returned annually, while females returned
only every other year. Since the gestation period (or any of the mating habits)
of white sharks is unknown, this observation offered a clue: did the females
spend the off years giving birth in warmer waters? It now appears (though it
remains unproven) that great white sharks have an 18-month gestation period.
Other Shark Project research shed light on the conditions under which white
sharks are most likely to attack: the effects of things like tides, lunar
cycles, and water clarity on their hunting behaviors.
Perhaps the Shark Project's most startling discovery is
that individual sharks have individual personalities. There are aggressive
sharks and mellow sharks and feisty sharks and sharks who are brilliant
strategists and sharks who are kind of dumb. None of this is scientifically
quantifiable, of course, but at the Farallones the white shark can be observed
as the complex and interesting animal it is, far removed from its image of being
a mindless eating machine.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by sharks?
Humans seem hard-wired to fear sharks, and yet we're also
drawn to them. I think that fascination must come from a very old place within
us. After all, sharks have been on the planet longer than trees! They've been
adapting successfully for 400 million years, fine-tuning their survival skills,
while by geological standards, we were born yesterday. It makes sense that in
our own development as a species, we would respond to the presence of master
predators. The fact that they thrive in an alien realm (water) and can suddenly
burst out of their element and into ours, makes them seem dark and secret.
Anything that isn't understood is feared. Almost universally, the sight of a
sharkit doesn't even have to be a great whitetriggers
a sense of awe or, if you're in the water, panic.
The two other main "characters" in The Devil's Teeth are
Scot Anderson and Peter Pyle, two biologists who studied the Farallon Island
sharks as part of the White Shark Project. How are these two men similar and
different in how they view the sharks and the project?
From the beginning, Peter's relationship to the islands was
a love story. He first arrived at Southeast Farallon in 1980, fresh out of
college and embarking on an ornithology career. For serious bird biologists, the
Farallones is mecca to begin with, but Peter loved everything about the
islandsfrom how isolated they were, to the mystery of what the sharks were
doing just offshore, to the Pacific storms that routinely pummel the place.
Although he's a very personable guy, he thrived in an environment that was all
about survival and isolation. For many years he spent months at a time
theresometimes half the yearand he reveled in running the place. He found
himself increasingly drawn to the sharks over the years, and partnered with Scot
on The Shark Project for fifteen years. But every aspect of the islands
Scot came to the Farallones
specifically to study the sharks, and though he's a well-rounded natural
historian, when he's on the island his attention is focused on the surrounding
waters. Scot's a savanthe seems to be able to think like a shark, seems able to parse their secrets better than anyone. It's like he has a sixth sense for
what they're up to. Scot runs into great white sharks as a matter of course,
which is just plain bizarre when you consider that most people will be lucky to
ever encounter any shark in the wild, let alone a great white. He can be fishing
at Tomales Point and have several sharks approach his boat. He can be driving
around the entrance to Bodega Bay and make out a slick where no one else sees
itand he's always right. He even came across a dead great white shark that had
washed up on Limantour Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, where he
works as a park ranger in the off season.
Over the course of the time you spent at the
Farallones, you became more and more obsessed with the sharks, and eventually,
in order to get around the U.S. Fish and Wildlife laws that forbid access to the
islands, you had a harrowing experience with a 60-foot sailboat that you had
borrowed. What is it about this experience that made you willing to put your
life in danger?
No one intentionally sets out to get themselves into deep
trouble. When I first climbed aboard Just Imagine, the boat that I intended to
live on during shark season, I had no idea how crazy the plan was. I thought it
was a marvelous ideaI'd get to report on an entire shark season, I'd be helping
the Shark Project with logistics by creating a floating research base. And I'd
be doing all of this without breaking a single regulation!
But it didn't exactly work out that way.
Even after the conditions began to deteriorate, I was
still heedless of the dangers. I knew that countless boats had gone down at
those islands. I knew that the weather was famously nasty. But at the time, all
that registered was that I wanted to stay. I can't entirely
explain my behavior, since it defied logic and self preservation and
everything else. The closest I can come is to say that I crossed over the line
between civilization and ungovernable wildness, and I liked that wildness more
than I could have ever imagined. It was primal. It was like mainlining the life
force. And it's not something you get to do very often in midtown Manhattan.
What do you think the future holds for the great white
sharks as a species?
Unfortunately, I believe that the species will not
survive. A study done a couple of years ago at Dalhousie University in Halifax
showed that 90 percent of the global sea's large predatory fish have been wiped
out. It's impossible to pinpoint exact population numbers for great whites, but
the Dalhousie scientists estimated that their ranks have been reduced by 79
percent. Our stewardship of the oceans is criminally negligent . Things aren't
going much better for the planet's apex predators on land, either. We're down to
a handful of white rhinos; they'll vanish in the near future. Siberian tigers
will follow. American wolves are confined to a playpen; cougars are shot in
suburban parking lots. It's open season on polar bears. And so it seems to be
going. As the human population swells, pressure on predators will increase.
There are a few glimmers of hope though, for great white
sharks, at least. In January 2005, they were listed on CITES Appendix II, which
provides them with global protection. The TOPP (Tagging of Pacific Pelagics)
program I describe in my book is yielding all kinds of intriguing information
that could be used to protect the species. And recently, the Monterey Bay
Aquarium successfully exhibited a juvenile female white shark for six months,
the first ever to survive in captivity for more than a few days. More than a
million people came to see her, and I am sure that their perceptions of great
whites were changed for the better by the encounter. When you encounter one of
these animals up close and personal, you immediately understand how unique they
are, and how complex. They're a million miles away from their image as
diabolical killing machines. Once people get that, they care.
What is the status of the Farallon White Shark Project
The Shark Project continues, but it has taken a different
form. Peter is no longer involved, though Scot remains active in the research.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife white shark research permits have been transferred to the
Block Lab at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station. So tagging is ongoing, with
Kevin Weng overseeing the effort. It appears that the days of launching boats
from the island to race out to shark attacks are overthe east landing crane is
now closed to this kind of activity. And so it's likely that more observation
will occur from the lighthouse, and from land, than on the water. There's been
some talk of trying the floating research platform idea once again, of anchoring
a boat in Fisherman's Bay and working from it. However, as I experienced, this
is easier in theory than in practice.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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