Animal Studies Bibliography

Casey, Susan. 2005. The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks. Henry Holt.
(Summarized by Meghan Charters, Animal Studies Program, Michigan State University)

“In any given year more than a thousand people will be maimed by toilet bowl cleaning products or killed by cattle. Fewer than a dozen will be attacked by a great white shark” (pp. 2). The Devil’s Teeth is an extravagant look into the natural world of the ocean’s most feared creatures – Great White Sharks. The story takes place on the Farallon Islands, a mere 27 miles West of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. First discovered in 1579, by Sir Francis Bacon, the islands are a host to everything from plankton to murres to humpback whales to great white sharks. The Farallon islands are also host to an unfortunate military experiment that left “840,000 gallons of oil” (pp. 6) seeping into the water, killing off twenty thousand seabirds. But this wasn’t the worst of it. In “1984, a tanker exploded and deposited 1.4 million gallons of crude directly into the ocean off the coast of the islands (pp. 6).

The Farallon Islands have had many names. “Sailors referred to them as ‘the devil’s teeth’, Miwok Indians called them the “Islands of the Dead”, and a nineteenth-century magazine commented that, “God has done less for it than any other place” (pp.76 – 77). While the islands themselves are considered a dark, mythical, and deadly place, they were the only location on the planet where one can observe great white sharks in their natural element. While researchers are chumming the water, open water diving, and cage diving of the coast of South Africa, researchers at the Farallones have the unique ability to study sharks from a lighthouse and/or a boat that isn’t even the size of a full great white. They never chum the water or cage dive; in fact Scot Anderson and Peter Pyle are completely against it.

Peter Pyle started his journey as a zoologist from Swarthmore who wanted to study birds. After much traveling and research he stumbled upon the PRBO (Point Reyes Bird Observatory). It was his dream come true. In 1979, he set foot on East Landing for the first time and since then has never wanted to step off (pp. 22). He admits that in the 1980’s they weren’t aware of the sharks looming in the waters below. Research programs for shark study were few and far between, there were no resources, and no one on the island had a real desire to study them. Peter Klimey was the first to begin research of any kind on great whites at the Farallones. This is when Scot Anderson appeared.

Scot Anderson came to the island in 1987. An enthusiastic shark researcher who didn’t fully agree with the tactics being used in South Africa, and had heard of the Farallones long before the rest of us. Upon his entrance to the island, he quickly got the ball rolling, and he lured in Peter Pyle. They started with scant materials and donations, but eventually worked their way up to semi-larger donations and the use of their own bank accounts in order to fund The Shark Project. They were the biggest daredevils of their kind, and still are. Motoring out to shark kills in tiny boats, in massive waves and storms, they videotapes above and below water. They used the practice of surfboard decoys to try and further understand the great whites mode of attack and in the process discovered that these beasts of the ocean have personalities and intelligence far outweighing anything ever imagined.

But why study sharks? Even more so, why study great white sharks? Upon Scot’s introduction to the island, he immediately roped Peter into his obsession with these majestic animals. They began observing attacks from shore, specifically the old lighthouse, and then they moved into the world of navigating the bays in what one could basically call a dingy – a boat that was shorter and thinner than the full length and width of the great white’s that roam the waters of the Farallones. They were fascinated from the moment they set the boat in the water. They had so many questions: How long do they live? Where, how often, and how do they mate? How big can they get? All of these questions, years of studying them at this point, and still no answers.

By the time Susan Casey had entered the mix – a reporter based in the NYC area – Scot and Peter had learned quite a bit about these mammals. “The have split personalities and these researchers believe they firmly understand what they are seeing when they see it (pp. 33 and 39). They are highly intuitive, they have a means of hiding their shape in the darkness of the ocean, and they are extremely quiet. “Even when a great white is in quiet reconnaissance mode, stalking on the periphery, its presence is overwhelming. You can feel them, a phenomenon acknowledged by researchers, surfers, divers – anyone who’s spent enough time on the water to have had a brush with one” (pp. 35). Ron Elliott, an urchin diver, can testify to this. Considered the last commercial diver around the Farallones, he started when divers were prevalent and no one really knew of the sharks. But one by one they began to leave and he was all that was left. He has experienced a number of scares on his own, as well as witness a number of attacks when other divers were still in the area. He understands the risks and understands even more that it isn’t his territory it is theirs.

Susan’s story is one of determination and possibly even legend. She has always been entranced by sharks and after seeing the BBC documentary of Scot and Peter, she knew she had to get involved in some way. She worked it out with the researchers and the department of fisheries and wildlife to visit the island, for short lengths, over a period of a few years. But this wasn’t enough. When the department of fisheries and wildlife sent a letter to Scot and Peter stating that shark observation would have to be done by land as of December 2004, Susan and Peter hatched out a plan. This plan would allow Susan to be right in the middle of the action and Peter and Scot could still perform their research. They used a sailboat – Just Imagine – from one of the Farallon Patrol members, anchored it by Tower Point, and Susan lived on it (for much longer than she wanted to). This vessel supported their research efforts as Peter and Scot were only allowed to launch a rowboat deemed “Tubby” from shore. Unfortunately, as the shark season went on, it appeared there was less shark activity than usual, breakdowns on the sailboat drove Susan crazy, and storm after storm made her even crazier. The final event was a massive gale with nineteen-foot waves coming every eighteen seconds. While Susan had lucked out and come to the island – illegally - the Just Imagine couldn’t tough it out. The anchor chain broke and the sailboat set for sea.

It was this event that eventually led to Peter losing his job on the island. He had worked for so much with the birds, the seals, the sharks, and the island itself, yet angry words from the Farallon Patrol gave the department of fisheries and wildlife enough grief to fire him. The work he and Scot performed has not been for nothing has they have provided the sole providers of much information regarding not only to great white sharks, but also murres, gulls, stellar’s sea lions, orca attacks on great white sharks, and much more. They worked to conserve not only the islands but also the waters around them, pushing for banning of chumming and cage diving directly off the coast. They also lived through the news of plutonium being in the water, affecting all of the animal life under the waters of their mythical island. Hearing of the atomic bomb testing site, the “low-level” radiation that emitted from hundreds if not thousands of drums on the ocean floor, was not something that enthralled them – they were trying to protect the creatures of the ocean, not destroy them. They lived through the opening of shark exhibits in aquariums up and down the California coast – of which thirty-seven great white sharks had been captured and expired in the process. They watched poachers come to the islands in hopes of hooking the shark that would be featured in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Through all of their trials and tribulations, Scot Anderson and Peter Pyle have done a tremendous justice for sharks. We now know that great white sharks suntan, making their topside dark as lead and fairly invisible to the eye (pp 33). They have split personalities, one for when they are on the attack and one for when they are investigating – this latter mode is what saves many humans when threatened with possible attack in the ocean (pp. 33). Great whites are also possibly scared of Orca’s, as witnessed on two separate occasions by Peter Pyle, where after an attack and kill of a great white, the remaining sharks scattered into the open ocean. This never would have been observed if it hadn’t been for the tagging project conducted by Peter, Scot, and Kevin (from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and TOPPs program).

These researchers, along with the interns, the researchers helping the efforts along from mainland, and Susan Casey were all involved in PRBO and Shark Project for one reason – they have a truly enormous appreciation of the natural world and the animals in it. Perhaps the best quote from the entire story is one of Peter Pyle’s, “They’re animals. We’re animals. We have opposable thumbs and a brain but as far as life on Earth goes, no one thing is better than another…I hate the word anthropomorphism. It should be the other way around. Not how animals are like humans, but how humans are like animals” (pp. 132).

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