There are goals, and there are death-defying goals. “I want to shift the perception of sharks from cold-blooded underwater predators to evolutionary marvels that play an integral part in maintaining the health of the world’s oceans, because this is the only way I know how to protect the species and save the world’s oceans,” writes William McKeever in the introduction to his extraordinary book “Emperors of the Deep: Sharks — The Ocean’s Most Mysterious, Most Misunderstood and Most Important Guardians.”
In a survey that takes Mr. McKeever across the world’s oceans, readers are treated to a close look at the very big fish immortalized in “Jaws” and are given a chance to replace raw dread with the appreciation of what the author posits as one of nature’s most misunderstood creatures. And while sharks still petrify this reader, there’s no doubt that Mr. McKeever makes a glorious — and eloquent — case for why the shark’s beauty, majesty and complexity should be respected.
The author spreads his investigation across a series of eye-catching chapters. His introduction is titled “Man Bites Shark,” and from there he proceeds with his engaging account in chapters that include “Sharks as Social Animals,” “The Sex Lives of Sharks,” “Shark Warriors,” “Shark Alley” and “Save the Shark” among others. He is very pro-shark in the sense that he appreciates the shark’s role as an “apex predator” — something that allows the shark, be it white shark, tiger shark or bull shark, to be the master of his domain, and whose noblesse oblige makes his mandate one of keeping ocean ecosystems inhabitable.
And while the book as a whole has the feel of an extended paean to one of God’s great creatures, it is also a political book. Greenpeace is revered, shark hunting is not, and the human factor in all of this is, well, to behave more responsibly toward the species who could kill you if it wanted to, but more often than not has other things to do. “While sharks kill an average of four humans a year, humans kill 100 million sharks each year. That is not a typo. Humans kill 100 million sharks each year.”
People seek out shark fins for shark fin soup, they’ve sought shark cartilage to cure cancer (it doesn’t) and overall “[h]umankind has taken the ocean’s apex predator and upended its position treating the shark as if it had the fecundity of a codfish.”
But life and people are like that. Mr. McKeever tellingly quotes Charles Darwin at the end of a paragraph he devotes to the hammerhead:
“While hammerheads are hunted constantly, their lives are quite ordinary; they live in their home territories, find mates, produce, and die. In that sense there is little difference between the life of the hammerhead and the life of humans. Yet humans are different and we have unique attributes. Darwin made the distinction clear. He said, ‘The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.’”
He also said, “‘Great is the power of steady misrepresentation.’” Mr. McKeever notes, “The misrepresentation of sharks has led to greatest threat to the hammerhead’s existence in 20 million years. … Our misconceptions about sharks as solitary, bloodthirsty species continue to be upended. Scientists continue to discover that sharks have more in common with people than previously believed.”
Mr. McKeever sets out his case and makes it well. The book proceeds apace and rarely fails to inform and delight. Some digressions, particularly his ventures into human trafficking at sea, make the reader yearn for the focus to return to the sharks. These are relieved by other moments that can only be called priceless. The shark named Mary Lee, who was tagged so her maneuvers could be followed, vanishes early on. The scientist who released her back into the sea, and named her after his mother, notes plaintively, “I didn’t know if I was ever going to have the opportunity to name another shark.”
There is whimsy here, and lightheartedness, but Mr. McKeever keeps himself anchored to science and to his concerns that sharks will be over-hunted despite their declining numbers and to their peril. A section on shark tournaments where shark hunters can earn thousands of dollars from high-stakes bets is particularly unnerving. Nevertheless, the book takes its strength from the call of the sea and the lure of the shark that the author so carefully chronicles. Mr. McKeever presses for conservation so “we can ensure that our children will look out on the ocean and know that underneath the surface, a shark will be swimming, standing guard over its dominion, protecting the ocean, the greatest miracle on earth just as it has done for more than 450 million years.”
And as for the shark’s fearsomeness, perhaps Peter Benchley, the author of the novel “Jaws” should get the last word. “The shark in an updated version [of “Jaws”] could not be the villain.”
• Carol Herman is deputy editorial page editor and books editor at The Washington Times.
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EMPERORS OF THE DEEP: SHARKS — THE OCEAN’S MOST MYSTERIOUS, MOST MISUNDERSTOOD, AND MOST IMPORTANT GUARDIANS
By William McKeever
HarperOne, $25.99, 320 pages