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Radio: Jaws of another kind

9/30/2005

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Mention "great white sharks" in most crowds, and oftentimes, somebody begins humming the familiar and ominous "dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh…" refrain of Steven Spielberg's 1975 epic film, Jaws.

Author Susan Casey isn't one of those people, however.

Casey, who serves as the development editor for Time, Inc., authored The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks, a book published earlier this year by New York's Henry Holt and Company.

Casey, a former editor of Sports Illustrated Women and a previous creative director for Outside magazine, doesn't think of a mindless oceanic killing machine when she thinks of a great white shark on the prowl.

Instead, she thinks of mysterious marine creatures known as the "Sisterhood" or the "Rat Pack," nicknames given by scientists' intent on observing various groups of great whites that show up every autumn near California's foreboding Farallon Islands to feed on blubber rich elephant seals.

Casey, who will be interviewed this Saturday morning at 6 a.m. ET on the coast-to-coast ESPN Outdoors radio show with Tommy Sanders, has found something that few people in North America even know exists.

That includes both the mysterious and dangerous craggy islands rising from the Pacific west of San Francisco and the sometimes "gnarly" saltwater predators, both of which inspired Casey to pen her 304 page volume.

"They're magnificent, absolutely magnificent," Casey said of the sharks, although her thoughts on the Farallon Islands are quite similar.

"The Farallon Islands, which are off the San Francisco coast, are technically a part of the city limits," Casey said. "They're just 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, and yet many people don't even know that they're there."

Casey was one of those.

"I lived in San Francisco for five years and I didn't know it (the island chain) was out there," she said. "Even today, I'd bet that nine out of 10 people on the streets of San Francisco don't even know it's out there."

That all changed when Casey saw a program devoted to ongoing research efforts of scientists such as Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson to learn more about the great whites that visit the group of islands every year.

"The Farallon Islands are the best place in the world to study them," Casey said, who was able to visit the off-limits coastlines some "eight or nine times" between the years 2000 and 2003.

Those journeys have helped to spawn an energetic passion in Casey for the marine species listed in CITES' (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix II for threatened species.

"People tend to think of them as ferocious animals with a lot of teeth," Casey said. "Make no mistake about it, they do have lots of teeth and they know how to use them."

"But to think of them as 'Jaws,' as some sort of mindless killing machines, well, they're much more complicated than that."

Casey got first hand evidence of that on her sojourns to the Farallons where she observed great white shark behavior up close and personal from the comfort — if you can call it that — of a 17-foot Boston Whaler used by scientists in studying the creatures.

"They're there (studying the sharks) because every fall this large population of adult great white sharks shows up to hunt seals," Casey said.

What makes the Farallons a particularly valuable spot to study great whites according to Casey is the big population of elephant seals that oftentimes ventures out for a swim about the ocean's rolling surface.

Much to the delight of the silhouette-attacking great white sharks, I might add.

That's because the sharks need the calorie-rich marine mammals' blubber to keep their "blast-furnace" metabolism stoked for their vast journeys through the ocean blue according to Casey.

Elephant seals, which true to their name aren't very adept at the rapid movements necessary to elude the sharks attacking from below, come to the surface to feed and don't customarily travel in packs.

That makes them easy pickings for the great whites, which typically decapitate their prey. As the lifeless seal floats on the surface of the kill-site, a feeding shark is then easily observed by inquisitive biologists — and at least one curious author.

Over the years, such observation for the "Farallon White Shark Project" has allowed the scientists to become quite familiar with the thirteen-foot plus marauders from the deep.

"They have even gotten to know some of these sharks as individuals and can identify them by their marks," Casey said.

While that on-going research has led to some colorful monikers for specific great whites — "Spotty" and "Cal Ripfin" are among them — it has also helped to close the gap somewhat on a scientific knowledge base that to date has been lacking in terms of hard-core information about these puzzling predators.

"There is so much that is unknown," Casey said. "For instance, we really don't know how long they live."

"We know virtually nothing about these sharks," she added, noting that unless some things change, "… they're going to be gone before we even know what they were."

Such "things" often revolve around issues that bring the great white shark's chief predator, humanity, into play.

While overexploitation in sport fishing, habitat issues, and oceanic pollution have undoubtedly played various roles in the downward spiral of the great white, the by-catch of sharks in commercial fishing activities is the specie's biggest current threat according to Casey.

If humans fear the great white shark, well, that's somewhat understandable since the species carries plenty of teeth and a certain oceanic mystery about them.

But what must also be seen about the great white shark, according to Casey, is that the oceanic predator is a creature worthy of our respect, curiosity, and protection.

"They're really cool," Casey said. "They're much more than you think."