Emperors of the Deep: Sharks—the Ocean’s Most Mysterious, Most Misunderstood, and Most Important Guardians

By William McKeever

Harper-One, 2019; 320 pages; $25.99

The International Shark Attack File, a website maintained by University of Florida professor George Burgess, documents about 6,200 cases of fatal and non-fatal encounters dating back to 1580, or a little over a dozen per year. Even allowing for incomplete reporting, the chances of any surfer or swimmer getting bitten are vanishingly slim. Considering that humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks each year for food and for sport, the blood-thirsty reputation of the great white and its kin seems a bit misplaced.

William McKeever, an environ-mental documentarian and activist, would agree. In this amiable mix of travel journal and wildlife guide, he visits sites around the world to view iconic species and to share lore with conservationists—all of whom regard sharks with unreserved admiration. On Cape Cod, he interviews members of a team that has (carefully) tagged over 300 great whites, tracking their movements around the Atlantic with satellites. Not only do the sharks routinely travel a hundred miles a day, but they easily swim to depths of more than 2,500 feet, well beyond the limit of a nuclear submarine.

Equally impressive are mako sharks, which have among the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish. Smart and adaptable, they can reach speeds of forty-five miles per hour in short bursts and are regarded as formidable fighters by sport fisherman. For McKeever, however, the tiger shark, whose powerful jaws and serrated teeth can crush the tough carapace of sea turtles, is a “weapon of mass destruction.”

McKeever’s informants also in-vestigate the subtle, less sensational features of sharkdom—sharks’ “sixth sense” of the electric fields produced by other fish, their social habits and cooperative behavior, and the inti-mate details of their sex lives. Other researchers emphasize the value sharks add to the oceans as apex predators, essential to the environmental balance of coral reefs and seagrass meadows. Economically, sharks are a growing tourist attraction, bringing in millions of dollars to ecotour opera-tors in at least twenty nations.

As in so many twenty-first century natural histories, there’s a dark side to McKeever’s otherwise celebratory pilgrimage. Threats abound. Sharks die by the millions as bycatch in commer-cial tuna fisheries. They are maimed and killed to provide fins for gourmet soups and nostrums for traditional oriental medicines. Pollution and ocean warming compound the dan-gers. Part of the solution, as McKeever sees it, is to rebrand a creature that most people only know from such fish stories as Jaws and Sharknado. Hope lies in websites that track the migra-tions of tagged individuals, in personal encounters at dive sites and aquariums, and in books and documentaries such as his film Man Bites Shark, so that a new consciousness can prevail, valuing sharks as gentle, intelligent, and worthy of preservation. 

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