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Susan Casey Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Susan Casey

Susan Casey

An interview with Susan Casey

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.

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 surreal—the 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 like—dark 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 one—not even native San Franciscans— seems to know about this place. Why do so few people know about the Farallones?

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 cooperates—on 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 countless mysteries.

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 species—it'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 object—like a surfboard—but 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 shark—it doesn't even have to be a great white—triggers 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 islands—from 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 there—sometimes half the year—and 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 captivated him.

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 savant—he 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 it—and 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 idea—I'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 today?

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 over—the 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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Books by this Author

Books by Susan Casey at BookBrowse
The Underworld jacket The Wave jacket The Devil's Teeth jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Susan Casey but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    Lynne Cox was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Los Alamitos, California, where she still lives. She is the author of Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson. Her articles have appeard in The New Yorker... (more)

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  • Stephan Faris

    Stephan Faris

    Stephan Faris is a journalist who specializes in writing about the developing world. Since 2000, he has covered Africa, the Middle East, and China for publications including Time, Fortune, The Atlantic Monthly, and Salon. He ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Wave

    by Stephan Faris

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