Sharks, ethics, and obsession: "Getting the story" in The Devil's Teeth

#1: The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey

When The Devil’s Teeth was published in 2005, I thought Susan Casey had stolen the ideal writing project from some hidden corner of my brain and had then proceeded to live it out: she attached herself to a group of biologists studying great white sharks off California’s coast. She got to live among them as they worked up-close with one of the planet’s most magnificent creatures, and then she got to come home and write a book about it.

I want that life!

The Devil’s Teeth stands as a great example of a writer willing to plunge headlong into a story, literally heart and soul, living it in order to really tell it.

But it’s a cautionary tale, too. How far is too far? What are the repercussions of being so involved in the story?

It really is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, “A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.” I thought the use of attention-grabbing buzzwords was merely intended to titillate readers into buying. It was a sales ploy, I thought. But no, Casey really is obsessed, and it drives the central action of the second half of the book.

Casey, then an award-winning editor with Time (and now editor-in-chief at O, The Oprah Magazine), saw a special on the BCC about the Farallones’ shark population and got hooked. So, she went out to do a story. Then she went back for a longer trip the next season as a follow-up. The next year, she went back again, this time to live on a boat offshore, to really be part of the action.

Casey has prime material to work with. First, she has the sharks. Great whites have become archetypal in our collective unconscious. “[W]hite sharks represent the terrible, powerful unknown,” Casey says.

They live in a different element than we do, they’re not cute, they’re not at all cuddly, and on some level they seem like the closest things we have to living dinosaurs. Their otherness is what both compels us and scare the pants off us. That, and their several sets of teeth. It’s a complicated relationship.

Along with the sharks, Casey has the Farallon Islands, a small archipelago of craggy granite islands twenty-seven miles due west of the Golden Gate Bridge. The islands jut from the Pacific “like the fangs of a sea monster badly in need of dental work,” says Casey, who quickly learns how inhospitable the islands really are. “The water was a fathomless black,” she writes; “fog crept through savage rock archways.” Thirty-knot winds, blanketing fog, and fifteen-foot seas are standard, she discovers. “The place gets regular lashings of the meanest weather the Pacific can dish out,” she says.

From August through September, the water around the Farralones gets unbelievably sharky. Great whites congregate off the islands in thick swarms for reasons biologists have yet to figure out. Casey fills her book with stories about the water’s infamous sharkyness, and it’s the central question she and the researchers continue to investigate through the entire book.

One thing that draws them, obviously, is the abundance of sea lions that populate the islands’ shores. The islands are also home to hundreds of thousands of sea birds. In fact, it’s the islands’ role as a bird habitat that affords it special protection as a National Wildlife Refuge, which makes the islands off-limits to everyone except the small group of scientists who stay there seasonally to study the seabirds. They just happen to study the sharks as a side project, too, and their bird-work gets largely ignored in the book.

Casey has a great talent for working technical information into her narrative, so the first half of the book is full of interesting information about great white sharks. As a shark lover, I couldn’t get enough—and she offered plenty.

The second half of the book, where she becomes personally invested in the story, focuses less on shark biology and background and more on her personal experience. Her desire to be around the sharks develops into what she describes as a need—and from there springs her obsession, which grows like a barnacle to amazing size.

Without spoiling any plot points, Casey ends up putting her life in jeopardy, putting someone’s boat in danger, and putting scientists’ careers at risk. The story she so desperately wants to tell takes a back seat to her own story of obsession and survival. “That single-mindedness colored everything I did, and ended up extracting a heavy toll,” she admits.

It is compelling stuff, no doubt, and it provides a convenient narrative structure for what would otherwise be a book-length musing about great white sharks.

Casey’s musings, though, offer the best reason for reading. Action story aside, and writerly ethics aside, too, Casey ponders some deeply important questions about humankind’s relationship with the natural world. The Farallones offer her many lenses through which she can examine those questions:

  • the research of the scientists,
  • the protection (and lack of it) afforded by the wildlife sanctuary and the surrounding marine sanctuary,
  • the exploitation of marine life by fisheries,
  • the impact of ecotourism on the sharks,
  • the impact of ecotourism on the research being done on the sharks,
  • the effects of pollution (including nuclear waste dumped by the Navy),

and on and on.

She comes to no conclusions—the questions are as big as the seas themselves, of course—and her expedition ends in ruin, but she does try to wrap up the book on a hopeful note.

The Devil’s Teeth could not have happened anywhere other than the Farallon Islands because of the unique ecological system at play there. By diving into that story, she was able to capture that ecology, which in turn helped capture the Farallones themselves. She makes it easy to see how she became fascinated with them (which, of course, works to her advantage because it’s then easier to see how fascination devolves into obsession—and “when the wheels come off,” as she says, it’s easier to see her as sympathetic).

Most importantly, The Devil’s Teeth offers sharks, sharks, sharks! But beyond that, it offers a moderately interesting tale of survival, and a slightly more interesting tale of obsession. What’s important, really, are the questions that arise from that obsession: what are the things that obsess us, culturally and socially, and why? How do those priorities and those devotions affect our interaction with the natural world?

Sharks have survived for hundreds of millions of years, but Casey’s questions make one wonder if sharks will be able to survive us.

2 replies »

  1. Read your review and still feel upset by the ending of casey’s book….I didn’t feel like she was truly sorry about basically ruining the careers of both Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson…..not only did her obsession ruin their careers, but seems to have destroyed their relationship and the success of the shark project. Personally, I feel like she really screwed up. Big time. But she justifies the wreckage she alone created by having this “obsession?”. I wonder how Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson feel about this. I enjoyed the book immensely but found myself feeling really annoyed and pissed off at Casey by the end. Selfish, and not “obsessed” is how I would describe her.

  2. I couldn’t agree more ! I’ve read the book 3 times and I’ve come away with that same conclusion. The book is great but I feel like she ruined the research lives of Peter and Scot just due to her selfishness. Certainly, Peter could have denied her access and never come up with the boat idea in the first place. Once she was there however, she became a distraction and a burden. Her desire to experience Great Whites, the Farallons islands or the life on the island does not justify what happened to these two men and the Shark Project. Like the reader above, I wonder how those two men feel about her now and how she has dealt with the outcome of her actions !
    Having said all that, it’s still a taut and engrossing story that I thoroughly enjoyed !