Majestic and misunderstood: new in bookstores

sharks and people cover The image on the cover of Thomas P. Peschak's "Sharks & People" is breathtaking ... and a little bit enigmatic.

What do I mean by enigmatic?

Is the kayaker, who's paddling in the sea of Japan, the subject of that 11-foot Great White's appetite or curiosity?

Anyone, of course, would freak out if they were in that kayak, but Peschak's book takes us far away from the Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg cliche of blood and massive, razor-lined jaws.

A contributing photographer to National Geographic Magazine, Peschak provides a fascinating portrayal of this ancient creature's plight in the contemporary world. It's no surprise: He explains that he's been up close and personal with sharks from an early age. That early experience informs all of his writing, not to mention his photos, which give us sympathetic portraits of a beautiful creature:


Peschak is interested, as his subtitle announces, in "Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea."

That relationship, it turns out, is not so great. On the back cover of this exquisite, coffee-table book, published by the University of Chicago Press, you'll find a shocking statistic:

Sharks killed by people: 38 MILLION People killed by sharks: 5

(Where are these figures from? 38 million is based on estimates of sharks traded on the fin market in the year 2000; 5 is the average annual shark bite fatalities between 2002 and 2012.)

He gives us grisly photos of sharks hunted and killed by the hundreds, piles of shark fins for the lucrative fin market ... There's also the simple threat posed by human pollution, which Peschak illustrates in this encounter between a whale shark and a plastic bag:


How does Peschak feel about all of this? Enraged, of course.

"My Western culture," he writes, "portrays the shark as a malevolent man-eating monster. The fear of sharks has led to violent retribution against these animals, which have been pursued with everything from explosives to rifles to gill nets and hooks."

Benchley/Spielberg, though, aren't the only ones to blame for kindling this fear. John Singleton Copley  captured the horror of a shark attack more than two centuries ago, in his painting Watson and the Shark:


There's a metaphysical quality to this scene, too -- Watson's like a lost soul desperately reaching for good Christian help before he's gobbled up. But it's the sheer terror of those dark, open jaws that always gets me. Pure doom.

Peschak's book, however, isn't pure doom. He shows us shark sanctuaries around the world, as well as the efforts of divers and surfers to create new methods of deterrence. Sharks have a "400-million-year-old sensory system to detect smells, tastes... even low-level electrical impulses." That has led some divers and surfers to develop devices to ward off sharks with a low electrical current. The technology's not the best yet--sometimes, unfortunately, the diver gets zapped in the process, too.

Peschak's book is the ideal gift for the shark lover in your family. Oh, come now, don't roll your eyes at me, my friends.  This is not a throwaway line.

Usually, coffee-table books follow a familiar formula: They go heavy on images and light on the text. While Peschak's book does follow that formulation, his text is hardly superficial. You will learn an extraordinary amount about these amazing creatures in this book -- how they hunted alongside dinosaurs, and how aspects of their anatomy, like their dermal denticles (skin teeth), are a wonder of nature's engineering.

You'll come away with far more than you expected, as well as a sobering thought. Sharks are as old as the dinosaurs, but the biggest threat to their future isn't an asteroid slamming into the earth: It's us.

To learn more about Thomas P. Peschak, check out his website here. I heartily recommend it.