The Great White Shark: It's Not What You Think


How does a very large, strong, fearsomely toothy, predatory fish live down a reputation as an attacker and killer of human beings, who are simply enjoying a summer day at the beach? Of course, I'm talking about sharks, particularly the Great White, considered one of the most terrifying people hunter and killer thanks to the 1975 blockbuster film "Jaws." The Great White Shark Scientist, by naturalist and author, Sy Montgomery, and photographer, Keith Ellenbogen, is a powerfully persuasive book that Great Whites suffer from an undeservedly bad rap. They researched this engaging book by spending time with Dr. Greg Skomal, an ardent shark scientist, who finds Great Whites, elusive, mysterious, and a threat to humans no greater than one in 37 million.

The Great White Shark Scientist is a narrative about the trials and tribulations that confront Greg and his team in, first and foremost, just locating sharks to study. The search involves a small plane, a small boat, good weather, a team to help take videos and tag the creatures, and frequent, fruitless sorties. Sy Montgomery's compelling prose shows just how much dedication and patience is required. But then, studying sharks also means going out on the waters of Cape Cod on beautiful summer days with a purpose. The thoroughness of Montgomery's experiential research also included a trip to Guadalupe Island where she came face to jaw with a Great White from a submersible cage. She describes the encounter as a mystical experience: "I felt no fear. No---held in the embrace of the blue, clear sea, mesmerized by the shark's fluid beauty, I experience only an overwhelming sense of tranquility." It is this profound respect for magnificent creatures in their natural habitats that drives a scientist's painfully slow incremental accumulation of knowledge.

And if you're a shark-o-phile already, The Great White Shark Scientist provides plenty of data to fan your ardor. "What Is a Shark?" Is a nicely summarized sheet of factoids describing its tooth-like body covering (instead of scales), how to know the difference between a male and female, and more. There is also "Sharks by the Numbers"--an exercise in acceptable risk-- the likelihood of a shark bite (4 between 1984 and 1987) as compared to say, the 43,000 people injured by toilets over a period of one year.

As an educator, my pet peeve is that too many movies are "based on real events," cashing in on the value of a true story, without showing where and how the filmmakers take dramatic license. "Jaws" put these magnificent animals on everyone's list of formidable dangers so that the myth becomes the reality. Written for middle schoolers, The Great White Shark Scientist is a convincing attitude changer that adults might find engrossing enough to read at the beach.