"People say sharks have dead eyes,” Sy Montgomery muses. “I don’t know what shark they saw.” The shark she made eye contact with when working on The Great White Shark Scientist (the newest title in her Scientists in the Field series) was “alert, cognizant, conscious,” she says. They’re also, she adds enthusiastically, “Beautiful, gorgeous things! The white of him was like satin, and the gray a dark, dark silver.”
Montgomery is known for making friends with creatures many find unlovable—her work has put her in close contact with piranhas, tarantulas, and recently, octopus. “I just never believed the prejudice people had against different animals. I’m attracted to different minds. Because a friend who’s just like you can double your own pleasure—but someone who’s different from you, they expand your horizons.” Her new book features two horizon-expanding “super-charismatic friends,” the great white shark and Dr. Greg Skomal, a leading expert on the creatures, and a friend and colleague of Montgomery’s for more than three decades. Packed with captivating photos (Skomal leaning out over the water to tag the huge sharks, aerial footage of shadowy figures lurking near the research boat, and pulse-quickening shots taken underwater, as Montgomery shares the water with the huge animals), the book also teems with provocative shark facts.
Despite her open-minded attitude, Montgomery still admits she didn’t know exactly how she would feel when encountering the sharks in their element. “Being submerged in a cage, having a 14-foot shark capable of biting the head off a lion seal in one chomp—that might make me nervous. ”She was not prepared for the sense of “tranquility” that overcame her as the shark approached. “When I first saw the shark in this beautiful clear water, I felt as though the ocean had gathered itself into the shape of a shark and that the ocean itself was approaching me in shark form. I felt almost like I was being…rescued. Now, of course, if I had not been in a cage, I might not have been so calm about it. But that’s where I was, and that’s how I felt.”
Her book arrives at the perfect teaching moment: as great whites return to the oceans of New England, it’s time to “educate the educators.”And by that she means the children: “because children are far more likely to educate their parents about these things than vice versa,” she says. Montgomery loves telling kids this: “You are far, far more likely—by a factor of 10—to be killed by your toilet than by a great white shark. More people die because of toasters than sharks! Room fresheners kill more people than sharks! So if you’re not afraid to get up and walk into your bathroom because of the deadly toilet that might be lurking there, you really don’t need to be afraid of going to the beach and swimming in the water.”
The author is keenly aware of the importance of her work writing and speaking to this young audience. The trick, she says, is to get to children “before they believe the lie that the world is really about amassing money or wealth. I think kids really know better, but that view just gets shoved down their throats from so many different directions and for so long, that some of them give up. But if we get them before they’ve bought that lie, it affirms what they already know—that what really matters is this beautiful blue planet of ours, this sweet green breathing world that gives us all our joy.”
Jessie Grearson is a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in Falmouth, Maine.