Sharks, as we all know from Jaws and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, can be scary, dangerous creatures. But how well do we really know these denizens of the deep? Now prolific Washington Post staff writer Juliet Eilperin, who has covered the environmental beat for the national desk since 2004, takes us into the ocean to learn more about these awesome creatures. In her exuberant worldwide investigation, Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, she reveals stories ranging from ancient rites to summon sharks by magic, to the brutal economics of the shark fin trade.
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To what debate does Demon Fish devote itself?
As science has shown there’s increasing evidence of humans’ impact on the oceans, there’s an intense debate over to what extent we should put swaths of the ocean—as well as some of its creatures—off limits. This is discussion that’s happening on a global level, as well as in the U.S., which I’m exploring in this book.
The first moments of your book occur with you right alongside Caribbean reef sharks and other lesser-known species. What drove you to get into the water in the first place?
I really got in the water with sharks on a lark. I had met Dr. Ellen Pikitch on a fellowship sponsored by Columbia University for environmental journalists, and she mentioned her work with sharks in Bimini. It seemed like an easy way to see a part of the natural world I had never explored—though I did have second thoughts when I was poised to jump in at Triangle Rocks. In the end, however, I managed to get into the water without too much hesitation.
What were the essential questions you wanted to address about these prehistoric creatures?
I wanted to examine why we’re so obsessed with sharks, and whether our attitudes toward them had changed over time. In addition, I was interested in exploring what we’re learning about them through science, and how they help govern a part of the world that we only enter from time to time.
You address huge misconceptions about sharks here. What are the most dangerous fallacies dispersed by the media about sharks?
The most prevalent myth about sharks is that they spend their time stalking humans. While research shows they do stalk their real prey—animals such as sea lions—we just don’t make it on that list.
Other myths about sharks include that they never get cancer, and therefore eating them can help cure humans of cancer, or that consuming them can do everything from ease arthritis to prolong one’s life. In fact, given sharks’ high mercury concentration, we’re better off not eating them so we can limit our exposure to neurotoxins.
How does your work on the environmental desk at the Washington Post tie into Demon Fish?
Luckily, there’s some natural overlap between my work at the Post and what I cover in my book. Frequently researchers tell me about their most recent discoveries concerning sharks, and I often put that news into the paper. Also, sharks have become an increasingly important part of international negotiations on everything from trade rules to fishing quotas, and I cover those subjects as well. But sometimes my focus on sharks elicits teasing from my friends. One of them jokes, “The Washington Post is the only paper in the country with a national shark reporter.”
What stories emerged from the writing of this book that fascinated you personally?
I was amazed at how certain cultures interacted with sharks, including men and women who felt better about themselves after going charter fishing for sharks, and Papua New Guinean villagers who are confident that God has endowed them with a power over sharks that no other society on earth possesses. But I was equally fascinated by some of the pure science I learned through writing the book, including the fact that cookie cutter sharks use their bioluminescence to lull larger fish into a sense of complacency, or that sand tiger sharks eat their siblings while in their mother’s womb.
There are some odd cameos in your book, ranging from a repentant [Jaws author] Peter Benchley to Rosie O’Donnell. Of your human subjects, who did you find most interesting in delving into the world of sharks?
The ones I found the most compelling, and still think about on a regular basis, are the ones who had a somewhat conflicted relationship with sharks. So that includes Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, who makes his living by catching sharks for tourists but also wants them to stick around for his son, and Selam Karasimbe, the Papua New Guinean shark caller who sees himself as practicing a divine ritual but also ends up killing sharks with his bare hands on a regular basis.
What was most important to you to portray about sharks and their environment in Demon Fish?
I wanted to make sure that people didn’t see them as warm and fuzzy like penguins, because they’re not. But I also wanted to convey how exceptional they are, and how they operate in a world that is both interconnected and complex.