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Originally published Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 7:06 PM

Book review

'Demon Fish': the world of the ferocious, fascinating shark

Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin's new book, "Demon Fish," plumbs the strange, scary and fascinating world of sharks. Eilperin discusses her book Monday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Juliet Eilperin

The author of "Demon Fish" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Monday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
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Sharks have a justifiable reputation as some of the fiercest animals to have evolved. Like dinosaurs, those other beasts of our worst nightmares, sharks are big, toothy and voracious. The biggest sharks top out at about the length of a school bus. The most unusual, with a head shaped like a hammer, looks like no other animal on the planet. And the most legendary, the great white, eats people and has starred in one of the best-known movies of all time.

Even more astounding, and perhaps more terrifying, is that sand tiger shark fetuses eat each other. Genetic studies show that a female can carry eggs fertilized by multiple males. During gestation, the fetuses from a single male can consume their half brothers and sisters in order to survive. "They tear them to bits," says biologist Demian Chapman. "A female sand tiger gives birth to a baby that's already a meter long and an experienced killer."

Chapman and sand tiger sharks are two of the many people and sharks featured in Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin's new book, "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks" (Pantheon, 295 pp., $26.95). Her book takes us deep underwater and deep into the underbelly of the world of sharks — those who hunt them, those who exploit them, those who protect them, and those who paddle to sea and call for them.

"Demon Fish" is well-written and engaging, though at times a bit too journalistic with interesting vignettes that connect to but don't necessarily propel Eilperin's story line.

Sharks have long fascinated humans. They appear on Phoenician pottery from 3000 BCE. An Iraqi judge from 13th-century CE described sharks in the Tigris River as having eyes "like fires of blood ... all other species run away from it" and the Mayans had an ominous, killer demon known as Ah Xoc, which some have argued gave us the word shark. (Others say that shark comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for cut or tear, scheron.) But shark mania or shark paranoia reached epic proportions in 1975 with the release of Steven Spielberg's classic movie "Jaws."

Notorious for its portrayal of a ravenous great white terrorizing beachgoers, the movie spawned worldwide fear — of the great white shark specifically, and of sharks in general. "As a result, we became convinced that sharks were a graver threat to us than they actually are," writes Eilperin. If anything, we are a far greater threat to sharks than they are to us. We kill them to show our virility. We eat them, or more accurately, we eat their fins and toss the rest of the body away, to show our status. We destroy their habitat because that's what we do to the sea.

No one knows what will happen to the sharks of the world. Several studies have shown dramatic declines in their numbers around the globe. As happens when other top predators decline, the entire food chain suffers, leading, for example, to the end of a century-old scallop industry in North Carolina. When shark numbers were high, they ate vast numbers of cownose rays and kept them in check, but when the sharks disappeared, rays became the "thugs of the ocean," consuming nearly all of the adult scallops.

But scientists and conservationists have also begun to better understand sharks, and to urge better protection for them. Sharks have been around in some form for about 400 million years. They saw the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. Perhaps they are more resilient than they appear.

David B. Williams is the author of "Stories in Stone"and "The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist."

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