Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks. By Juliet Eilperin. Pantheon, 2011. 320 pages.
Reviewed by Sanjayan, lead scientist, The Nature Conservancy
Shark books come in two sorts: Those about the biology, behavior, and conservation of sharks, or about humans who come into deadly contact with the point-end of sharks. Demon Fish glides swiftly between these two extremes and asks not what are sharks, or why are they important, but rather what they mean to people who consider them either deity or demon, and sometimes both.
Despite the immensity of the oceans and our relentless fishing of sharks, we still believe that sharks are everywhere, especially the few cubic meters of water that we may occasionally occupy the moment we step into the watery realm.
Eilperin sets out to disprove this myth, but only partially. It turns out there are many more species of sharks than we had imagined, and new ones are still being discovered. They inhabit almost every part of the ocean, and at least some species still number in the tens of millions. Their influence on the oceans is still present but like a fading global power, waning in the time of man.
With a keen eye for detail, meticulous research, and her Washington Post reporter’s sensibilities for following a good story, Eilperin takes us on global page-turning journey. In Papua New Guinea, we meet the legendary “shark callers of Kontu,” while in Miami we go shark fishing with tourists, and off Dyer Island, South Africa, we enter into dark waters with her to watch great whites feed up close. In one of the most revealing passages, Eilperin puts us in a Chinese kitchen preparing traditional shark fin soup, a primary driver for plummeting shark numbers in the Pacific’s waters, and points out that the fin imparts no flavor and is the least important part of this difficult to make dish. When she asks, at a top restaurant, why they continue to serve shark fin soup, the reply is succinct; “everybody wants fins.”
And that, in short, is the problem: We love too much the fish we love to hate. Sharks have inhabited our planet for an astonishing 400 million years; but when you add humans to the mix, they disappear. Demon Fish won’t keep you out of the water by day, but it will keep you up at night…reading.
(Image: Bryon Scott Photography/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)