Majestic and misunderstood: new in bookstores

sharks and people cover

The image on the cover of Thomas P. Peschak’s “Sharks & People” is breathtaking … and a little bit enigmatic.

What do I mean by enigmatic?

Is the kayaker, who’s paddling in the sea of Japan, the subject of that 11-foot Great White’s appetite or curiosity?

Anyone, of course, would freak out if they were in that kayak, but Peschak’s book takes us far away from the Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg cliche of blood and massive, razor-lined jaws.

A contributing photographer to National Geographic Magazine, Peschak provides a fascinating portrayal of this ancient creature’s plight in the contemporary world. It’s no surprise: He explains that he’s been up close and personal with sharks from an early age. That early experience informs all of his writing, not to mention his photos, which give us sympathetic portraits of a beautiful creature:

049arabian-shark-fins-tradec2a9thomas-p-peschak

Peschak is interested, as his subtitle announces, in “Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea.”

That relationship, it turns out, is not so great. On the back cover of this exquisite, coffee-table book, published by the University of Chicago Press, you’ll find a shocking statistic:

Sharks killed
by people:
38 MILLION
People killed by sharks: 5

(Where are these figures from? 38 million is based on estimates of sharks traded on the fin market in the year 2000; 5 is the average annual shark bite fatalities between 2002 and 2012.)

He gives us grisly photos of sharks hunted and killed by the hundreds, piles of shark fins for the lucrative fin market … There’s also the simple threat posed by human pollution, which Peschak illustrates in this encounter between a whale shark and a plastic bag:

whale-sharks-thomas-p-peschak-nature-story-third-1024x681

How does Peschak feel about all of this? Enraged, of course.

“My Western culture,” he writes, “portrays the shark as a malevolent man-eating monster. The fear of sharks has led to violent retribution against these animals, which have been pursued with everything from explosives to rifles to gill nets and hooks.”

Benchley/Spielberg, though, aren’t the only ones to blame for kindling this fear. John Singleton Copley  captured the horror of a shark attack more than two centuries ago, in his painting Watson and the Shark:

Watsonandtheshark-original

There’s a metaphysical quality to this scene, too — Watson’s like a lost soul desperately reaching for good Christian help before he’s gobbled up. But it’s the sheer terror of those dark, open jaws that always gets me. Pure doom.

Peschak’s book, however, isn’t pure doom. He shows us shark sanctuaries around the world, as well as the efforts of divers and surfers to create new methods of deterrence. Sharks have a “400-million-year-old sensory system to detect smells, tastes… even low-level electrical impulses.” That has led some divers and surfers to develop devices to ward off sharks with a low electrical current. The technology’s not the best yet–sometimes, unfortunately, the diver gets zapped in the process, too.

Peschak’s book is the ideal gift for the shark lover in your family. Oh, come now, don’t roll your eyes at me, my friends.  This is not a throwaway line.

Usually, coffee-table books follow a familiar formula: They go heavy on images and light on the text. While Peschak’s book does follow that formulation, his text is hardly superficial. You will learn an extraordinary amount about these amazing creatures in this book — how they hunted alongside dinosaurs, and how aspects of their anatomy, like their dermal denticles (skin teeth), are a wonder of nature’s engineering.

You’ll come away with far more than you expected, as well as a sobering thought. Sharks are as old as the dinosaurs, but the biggest threat to their future isn’t an asteroid slamming into the earth: It’s us.

To learn more about Thomas P. Peschak, check out his website here. I heartily recommend it.

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8 responses

  1. Just remarkable. Honestly, it’s not a book I’d purchase for myself, but I certainly wouldn’t be averse to taking a peek into it.

    We have an abundance of sharks along the Texas coast and in Galveston Bay just now. They’re not of the Jaws variety. They’re mostly nurse sharks, black-tipped and sand. But they can cause a little trouble, especially for wade fishermen and kayakers.

    A fellow called into the early morning outdoor show on the radio and reported this little incident. A fellow was fishing from his kayak, and was keeping his fish on a stainless steel stringer. No problem with that, except that when the shark showed up and decided he wanted those fish for himself, he discovered he couldn’t bite through the stringer. He pulled and pulled and in a flash had rolled the kayak, dumping the fisherman into the water.

    Eventually the shark got his fish and the fisherman got away, but there certainly was something to talk about in the cafes and bait shops that morning.

  2. My pleasure RC … your post on Peschak was far superior to mine. I hope that book gets good momentum over the holidays. I’ve seen plenty of shark coffee-table books over the years, but this one is definitely special. I’m not surprised with Univ of Chic Press as the publisher. They publish some really fine stuff. Thanks for commenting — I’ll be sure to follow you and see what you’re up to.

  3. Thanks, we look forward to it! If you’re on facebook (and like birds) keep an eye on the RC page as well. We’re hoping to do some fun collaborations with Celebrate Urban Birds and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. See you there!

  4. This was great, thanks. A rather daring family we know organised a wild life party for their 6 year old, with snakes, spiders and all matter of creepy crawlers thrown in for the occasion. The message? Again that humans mostly act on irrational fears and cause greater harm to animals than animals cause on us. There were interesting stats of death caused by snakes and spiders’ bites versus the more popular apple seed….or bee, oops, I forgot if eating apples is more dangerous than walking in the sunshine on a summer’s day holding an ice cream, rats! Kids bought it and happily wrapped snakes around their necks, although I was quietly relieved when i spotted my daughter disappearing in the back only to reappear when the party food was laid onto the table and the interesting creatures safely boxed up and put away!

  5. I think I’d have done the same thing as your daughter. Snakes are definitely not my idea of party favors! Bookwise, your description of an outdoors party with little creatures makes me think of Byatt’s “Angels and Insects” (the story Morpho Eugenia). Cheers.

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