Book Jacket Synopsis: “Travel thirty miles north, south, or east of San Francisco city hall and you’ll be engulfed in a landscape of thick traffic, fast enterprise, and six-dollar cappuccinos. Venture thirty miles due west, however, and you will find yourself on what is virtually another planet: a spooky cluster of rocky islands called the Farallones, battered by foul weather, thronged with two hundred thousand seabirds, and surrounded by the largest great white sharks in the world. Journalist Susan Casey was in her living room when she first glimpsed this strange place and its residents sharks, their dark fins swirling around a tiny boat in a documentary. These great whites were the alphas among alphas, the narrator said, some of them topping eighteen feet in length, and each fall they congregated here off the northern California coast. That so many of these magnificent and elusive animals lived in the 415 area code, crisscrossing each other under the surface like jets stacked in a holding pattern, seemed stunningly improbable – and irresistible. Casey knew she had to see them for herself. Within a matter of months she was in a seventeen-foot Boston Whaler, being hoisted up a cliff face onto the barren surface of Southeast Farallon Island – part of the group known to nineteenth-century sailors as the “Devil’s Teeth.” There she joined two biologists who study the sharks, bunking down in the island’s one habitable building, a haunted, 120-year-old house spackled with lichen and gull guano. Less than forty-eight hours later she had her first encounter with the famous, terrifying jaws and was instantly hooked. Curiosity yielded to obsession, and when the opportunity arose to return for a longer stay, she jumped at it. But as Casey readied herself for shark season, she had no way of preparing for what she would find among the dangerous, forgotten islands that have banished every campaign for civilization in the past two hundred years.”
Review: This is my second time reading a book by Susan Casey, the first being Voices in the Ocean. After finishing The Devil’s Teeth, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I appreciate Casey’s ability to tell stories and write quality nonfiction from a literary standpoint, I really, really, REALLY don’t like her as a person. The Devil’s Teeth starts off promisingly enough, with a fascinating look at the history and biology of the Farallon Islands. I really enjoyed reading about the many failed attempts to domesticate these islands. I also enjoyed learning about the amazing wildlife that calls the Farallon Islands home, including thousands of seabirds, colonies of pinnipeds, and the stars of this story, the great white sharks. What I did not enjoy, and what almost completely ruined the book for me, was Casey’s role in the story. Her introduction to the Farallones is innocent enough; she’s a curious journalist given a coveted day-pass to the islands. But that first introductory trip leads to a subsequent trip, which somehow leads her to getting a once-in-a-lifetime position as part of the Farallones great white shark research team. Despite an almost complete dearth of boating experience, coupled with virtually no biological experience, Casey somehow finds herself as the sole caretaker of a borrowed sailboat that serves as both research headquarters and Casey’s home for the field season. Her complete ineptitude is hinted at when she discusses certain items she brought along for this field stint, including a deluxe sleeping pad and a $160 handmade Ouija board. Not only does she come off as inexperienced, but she also clearly wants all the perks of great white shark research and living in a biological hotspot without the actual work and effort of field research. This is best evidenced when she says the following:
“I was driving. I’d tried to beg off; the water was, in Peter’s appraisal, “snotty,” and I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t want to have to think, or worry, or demonstrate any kind of skill. I wanted to sit in the whaler’s scooped-out bow staring passively at the surface and wait for some amazing creature to poke its head up. That was all.”
Yes, as someone who has worked in tough field conditions, I understand that there are days where you JUST. DON’T. FEEL LIKE IT. But this attitude of Casey’s is pervasive throughout the book and highlights what I see as her underlying, flawed motive: to have amazing nature handed to her on a silver platter with little to no effort on her part. Overall, I think my immense frustration with Casey stems from the fact that, as someone in an intensely competitive field, research positions like the one Casey managed to acquire are heavily sought after by extremely qualified individuals. Short and sweet, she didn’t deserve the spot she got. And her ineptitude ends up having devastating consequences towards the end of the field season: the borrowed sailboat is lost at sea after a storm frees it from its mooring (Casey was supposed to be on the boat, but instead she was illegally on the island because she couldn’t handle being alone). The aftermath of losing the boat results in Peter Pyle, dedicated great white shark scientist, losing his job. Pyle himself is certainly complicit in the events that unfolded, but the root cause can always be traced back to Casey. Other readers have often drawn comparisons between The Devil’s Teeth and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and I can understand the comparison; both tales involve journalists getting in over their heads and underestimating the power of nature. Having read both books, however, I feel that Krakauer was much more qualified for his Mount Everest attempt than Casey was for her Farallones stint. All in all, I appreciated the history on great white sharks and the Farallon Islands, but Casey’s role in the story effectively ruined this book for me and resulted in a three-star rating. If I could separate the book, I would give the first half four stars (although Casey had already started getting on my nerves at that point) and the last half one star.