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Review: Juliet Eilperin's 'Demon Fish' explores the culture of the maligned shark

Say the word "shark" to most Floridians, especially at the beach, and their faces fill with panic and fear.

But these much maligned and often misunderstood creatures, the apex predators of the world's oceans, have more to fear from humans than humans do from them.

Shark populations are plummeting, thanks to human greed and just plain bad PR.

However, there is hope. The more people learn about sharks, the more likely they are to support their protection. Author Juliet Eilperin, the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, has gone a long way to further that cause.

In her new book, Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, Eilperin takes the reader from the fish markets of Hong Kong, where traders sell dried fins for the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup, to the azure waters off the Bahamas, where marine biologists conduct cutting-edge research on lemon sharks.

Unlike most shark books, which focus primarily on the dramatic, highly publicized human-versus-shark encounters, Eilperin tackles a more difficult topic: the culture of sharks.

In Papua New Guinea, the canoe-paddling indigenous people have learned to coexist with sharks, a fish that holds deep religious significance. But in Miami Beach, charter boat captains kill and string up pregnant hammerheads just so tourists can have their photos taken with a "monster" from the deep.

There is no doubt that the species' well-earned nasty reputation has made sharks more difficult to protect than cuddly manatees and super-smart dolphins. But without them, the ocean's food web would collapse. These creatures remove the weak, the sick and the dead.

In reality, the average Floridian has a greater chance of being struck by lightning or killed by a bee than of being eaten by a shark.

In some circles, the risk is higher. Surfers and spearfishers know that sharks come with the territory. They deal with these animals with a sort of detached, stoic determination. As veteran South African surfer Peter Stride sees it, great white sharks were the locals long before humans started crowding the lineup.

As Eilperin writes, "He's philosophical about what fate might await him in the Atlantic, harboring just one wish should he meet a great white in the water: 'If a shark wants to bite me, please heave off and leave me dead.' And with that he laughs and heads for the open waves crashing behind him."

After reading Eilperin's book you will realize that there is another species more deserving of the title "demon" when it comes to life and death in the sea.

Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks

By Juliet Eilperin

Pantheon, 320 pages, $26.95

ON TV: Discovery Channel kicks off its annual Shark Week programming at 9 tonight.

Review: Juliet Eilperin's 'Demon Fish' explores the culture of the maligned shark 07/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 30, 2011 4:30am]
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