Monday, June 06, 2016

Stalking the Great White: The Great White Shark Scientist by Sy Montgomery

"If a shark comes in the cage," said Erick--and this really got our attention--"stay away from the mouth and teeth."

And then, everyone's attention focuses to our right. Perhaps a hundred feet away, something is happening. It seems that in an instant, the ocean itself gathers into the shape of a shark. The water has been made flesh and is swimming toward us. We can see from the claspers that this is a male.

I remember reading Richard Ellis's account of an experience in a shark cage. "If there is one thing burned into your mind it is the image of white teeth in a gaping mouth large enough to swallow a child."

But our shark's mouth is not gaping. He seems to be smiling. His skin is blindingly bright: gleaming silver, like a knight in white satin. He moves through the water effortlessly, a combination of controlled power and balletic grace. I have never seen anyone so elegant. I feel no fear. Held in the embrace of the blue, clear sea, mesmerized by the shark's fluid beauty, I experience only an overwhelming sense of tranquility.

Shark scientists never forget such moments, but their work is not always so spectacular. In Sy Montgomery's latest in the outstanding Scientists in the Field series, The Great White Shark Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series), we follow marine biologist Greg Skomal at work in two areas, the shallows off Cape Cod in Massachusetts in summer and Guadalupe Island, off the west coast of Mexico in winter, as they seek out the Great White, not as sport but as serious scientists trying to document the numbers, habits, and life cycle of this illusive big fish. After the scary success of the movie "Jaws!" great whites were deemed man-eaters and hunted down in the summer waters around the Cape, with, as usual, unforeseen consequences. Seals gradually became became common visitors in the area, filling up beaches, and gobbling up the sport fish that thousands of fishermen flock to the Cape to catch. It seems without the sharks, seals swarm the area and get the bulk of the haul, with further damage to the local ecology--and economy.

Enter the shark scientist Greg Skomal and his staff, who spend the warm summer days in the pedestrian work of shark counting, shark tagging, and shark identification. Atlantic great whites migrate up and down the North American east coastline, with occasional "holiday" jaunts eastward to the Caribbean Islands, (or even mid-Atlantic) but scientists currently have no idea where they mate or give live birth to their pups, and Skomal has the tantalizing theory that perhaps the coast off Massachusetts may be that place.

Summer shark trackers work with aircraft spotters who can see the sharks better from on high, and in their fast boats the shark scientists hone in on each one. With GoPro cameras and sonar, they attempt to discover if they recognize an old friend, a tagged shark whose implanted device "pings" its location as it journeys from the tropics to the North Atlantic each year. If a new, untagged shark is spotted, it is the job of Greg and his crew catch them near enough to the surface to tag them with a long gig pole. At times, the crew has to get up close and personal with smaller sharks, holding them by hand to implant the tags. From long hours spent in the hazardous and shallows around the Cape emerges the data which they crunch to track the elusive big sharks on their yearly voyages.

But when the Cape Cod shark season ends, the shark scientists turn to the tropical waters off Central America and Mexico where other great whites winter, and in those crystal clear waters they get to observe and record their favorite big fish close up from submerged shark cages--the real fun of being a shark-loving marine biologist. And out of their groundbreaking studies has come a new way of looking at the great white shark.

"It was calming and humbling," said one young student. "Having seen them, my yearning to protect them has definitely grown, Now I would absolutely loved to see them thriving."

Winner of the American Library Association's Siebert Award for excellence in nonfiction for young people, Sy Montgomery's The Great White Shark Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series) tells it like is when it comes to doing marine biology and shows that intimidating animal as one important link in the life cycle of the seas.

It's not all heart-thumping encounters with those giant raptors of the seas; a lot of it, as in any science, is dogged documentation of data, combined with the necessary ability to see the big picture and retain a passion for what they do, and the author catches that quality well. Keith Ellenbogen adds stunning color photographs to each page, and Montgomery does her usual solid job of providing substantiating backmatter--maps, bibliography, web resources, and an index which indicates related illustrations. A must-have for libraries and great white shark fans.

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