Few animals inspire as much fear and fascination as sharks. Nearly 31 million TV viewers were worked into a frenzy during Shark Week last year, as The Discovery Channel indulged in their annual celebration of wall-to-wall programming about the fearsome predators of the seas.
Yet sharks remain incredibly misunderstood animals — mainly thanks to Hollywood, which prefers to cast them in the role of bikini babe-eating beast.
Just in time for summer reading season (and Shark Week, which begins in late July), comes a fascinating new book that hopes to take a chunk out of some of that confusion. Demon Fish: Travels Through The Hidden World of Sharks by Washington Post environment reporter Juliet Eilperin, is an eye-opening exploration of the history and traditions surrounding one Mother Nature's most ancient creatures.
From Papua New Guinea to South Africa to The Bahamas, Demon Fish is a non-stop adventure tale that reveals why we are so enthralled with sharks, how humans are learning to live alongside them, and why we are the biggest threat to their survival.
TakePart spoke with Juliet Eilperin about the hidden world she discovered while traveling the world to research the book, why a bowl of soup is so dangerous for sharks, and whether swimming with sharks earns her any street cred amongst her fellow Beltway scribes:
TakePart: You write that sharks are a pretty ancient species. How long have they actually been swimming around? Can you situate them in history for us?
Juliet Eilperin: Absolutely. Sharks have been swimming in our oceans for more than 400 million years – somewhere between 400 and 450 million years. So they predate dinosaurs by 200 million years, to put it in perspective.
TP: In a nutshell, what has been their role in history? Has it always been this image that we have today of Jaws attacking people on the beach?
JE: They’ve played different roles, both in terms of human societies as well as in the ocean.
In terms of human societies, if you go far back, really what you’ll find is that island communities traditionally worshipped sharks. They often viewed them as having a personal connection to their ancestors and were actually the entities who protected them when they went out to sea to find the fish they needed to survive.
If you look at Hawaiian lore, if you look at what people in Fiji and Panama thought of sharks, you’ll find incredibly positive images of sharks. The Panamanians even have tio tubaron, which means “uncle shark,” as a figure in their folklore. So that was really the way they were viewed for centuries.
TP: So why the title Demon Fish?
JE: That’s really referring to the modern view that we have of sharks – which is shaped by Jaws as well as a few other issues, including seafaring around the turn of the century.
Essentially, sharks came to be viewed as the enemy when we got in the water – whether it was for swimming or surfing or, sometimes, going out at sea.
Fishermen also came to demonize the shark because they saw them as competitors for dwindling fish populations. That’s why I ironically used the term, “demon fish” – because I’m trying to point out that, while we see sharks as having some sort of evil intentionality, when you look at it, they’re much more nuanced.
TP: What is the most misunderstood thing about sharks in the modern American psyche?
JE: The most misunderstood element when it comes to sharks is the idea that they deliberately attack humans. That’s simply not true. It’s not borne out by research. What happens – even with the most dangerous sharks, such as Great Whites – is that, if they do end up attacking humans, (which they do from time to time), it’s inevitably an accident where they were targeting what they thought was their prey, such as a sea lion or a seal.
And they tend to fairly quickly do something which is called “bite and spit.” They will bite into a prey, whether that’s a seal or a human, and spit it out if they recognize that, for example, their object isn’t fatty enough for their diet.
That’s what tends to happen with humans – which can, of course, have disastrous consequences. But it’s not that they’re stalking humans intentionally.
TP: You point out that humans, in fact, are a bigger threat to sharks than they are to us. And one of the biggest fights that we see right now is over something called shark fin soup. What is shark fin soup and why is there is this fight over it at the moment?
JE: Shark fin soup is a delicacy prized in Asia – particularly in Chinese cultures, although it has spread to other ones as well – where it’s a form of status to be able to serve a very expensive soup which gets its flavoring from other things like chicken and pork, but includes these small gelatinous noodles that come from the shark’s fin.
While it’s existed for centuries, it has become increasingly popular in recent years – particularly as more Chinese have more money to spend on luxuries. And it’s what’s driven the deliberate hunting of sharks across the world. Scientists estimate that anywhere between roughly 25 million and 73 million sharks a year are killed just for their fins to supply this Asian trade.
TP: And so what happens on the hunt? How do they acquire the fins?
JE: What fishermen generally do is that they’ll deliberately haul in sharks and then lop off their fins and discard the body overboard so they don’t have the expense of storing and bringing in the rest of the body to shore.
Shark meat sells for a tenth of what a fin would sell for. And so once they throw the rest of the shark’s body overboard, the animal can’t survive and sinks to the bottom.
TP: And what is it about the shark’s fin that’s so prized? What does it symbolize?
JE: That’s a really good question. It symbolizes a couple things. One is simply that you have to have paid a lot of money in order to get it, and so it’s just prized as a luxury.
There’s also an element of something as lethal and scary as a shark has been caught to provide your meal, and that bestows a sense of prestige on the person who’s providing the food.
TP: We live in a culture now where Shark Week is an event, and people will sit there and watch shark shows on cable TV forever. Let’s engage in a little pop psychology right now: why are we fascinated by sharks?
JE: I think there are two major factors: One is simply that they are one of the animals that exist in this world that can overpower humans. And I think there’s something compelling about that – they pose a kind of risk and threat that grizzly bears pose to us, that tigers and a handful of other creatures. It taps into our most basic, primordial fear for survival.
At the same time, unlike some of these terrestrial animals, sharks operate underneath the water surface in a way that we can’t see. And that gives them a kind of allure that some of these other fearsome predators lack.
TP: You cover environmental issues for The Post. Of all the things on your beat that you could have written about, you chose sharks. How did this become an interest for you and why did you choose to write about them?
JE: I really enjoy writing about the oceans broadly because I feel like it’s an area that’s in an era of scientific discovery right now. Through technology, we’re learning things that we never knew about the ocean even 5, 10, or 15 years ago. So from that perspective, it just offers revelations that some other environmental issues don’t.
On top of that, I think that the oceans don’t get as much attention. So from a reporting perspective it’s rewarding to write about something that some others haven’t been paying attention to.
And the third factor is simply that I love diving and exploring in the oceans. They’re just incredible, and the chance to go down and experience something that lots of people don’t have the opportunity to do is something that really grabbed me.
TP: When people finish Demon Fish, what are you hoping they walk away with? What do you hope they get from the book?
JE: I hope that they both have a different view of something that they thought about in passing at some point in their lives but never really seriously considered – which is, “What are sharks really like, and what is the role that they play in our planet, in our world?”
And I also hope that they do walk away with a sense of wonder about the sea. Because I think that’s one of the things that I really came to appreciate in the course of writing the book, and I hope that anyone who reads it feels the same way.
TP: Who gets bigger bragging rights in the Post newsroom – the person who jumped into the ocean with sharks or the person who wrote a book about the Secretary of State?
JE: Well, my dear friend Glenn Kessler wrote one of those books, so I think he’d kick my butt if I said that I did. But I will say that, you know, some of my colleagues like to tease me that I may be the only national shark reporter in the United States. It’s a pretty quirky specialty, and I do get some points for having been in the water with sharks.
Have you been bitten by shark fever? Juliet is taking Demon Fish on the road this summer. Check out her tour schedule and pick up a copy of the book when she hits your town:
June 13 - Boston, New England Aquarium 7pm
June 15 - Washington, Politics and Prose, 7pm
June 19 - Philadelphia, Big Bue Marble Bookstore, 3pm
June 21 - Brooklyn, Word Bookstore, 7pm
June 28, Atlanta, Georgia Aquarium, 6:30pm
July 14 - Cold Spring Harbor, NY, Library and Environmental Center, 7:30pm
July 25 - Seattle, University Books, 7:30pm
July 26 - Portland, OR, Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, 7pm
July 27 - Long Beach, Aquarium of the Pacific, 7pm
July 28 - San Diego, Birch Aquarium, 6:45pm
July 30 - Washington, National Aquarium, 12pm
August 4 - Falmouth, MA, Public Library, 7pm
August 5 - Woods Hole, MA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, 12pm
August 7 - National Aquarium, 12pm
September 9 - Denver, Tattered Cover Bookstore, 7:30pm
September 26 - Princeton, NJ, Labyrinth Books, 6pm