Natural science writer James Woodford kicks off his “Great White journey” by cage-diving with shark scientists among the reefs and islands off South Australia’s Port Lincoln, a known hot spot for great white sharks. Suspended in a cage just below the surface of Main Bay at North Neptune Island, he has a close encounter with Mulga, at more than five metres long, one of the greatest whites. Woodford’s firsthand experience of that slamming physicality and power shapes his book and the questions it addresses: what are sharks made of, are we on their menu, and can we co-exist?
A whole chapter is dedicated to the shark’s jaws, weaponised for maximum power (exerting a bite force of up to 1.8 tonnes, more than 10 times greater than the strongest human jaws) and swift subjugation of prey. In praise of their efficacy, Woodford quotes Sun Tzu: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” The jaws can readily dislocate, for maximum bite: in preparation to attack, the shark’s “lips” retract, making the jaws protrude. (Picture Ridley Scott’s aliens and you have the idea.)
Woodford explores the question of why, when road accidents and drowning account for thousands more deaths each year, it is shark attacks that provoke demands for immediate, lethal action. True, every white shark is a rogue shark, he says: rogue is a state of being for these super predators. But only by mistake, Woodford contends, do they bite humans. Research suggests that, in some of Australia’s favourite coastal swimming spots, sharks and people are in closer and more frequent proximity than we imagine, with – most of the time – no panic, no bloodshed.
Given that sharks seem able to tolerate humans, Woodford puts the view that a willingness in humans to co-exist with great white sharks – not just to live and let live but, sometimes, to die and let live – is a sign of respect for the natural order. “[T]he courage of restraint is our new rite of passage, a new test of bravery,” he writes.
Lax editing – starting with a howler on the front cover’s blurb – does the book no favours. The author’s boyish gushing (“internationally famous surfing cult legend, Wayne Lynch”) and runaway syntax could have done with some reeling in. But overall, Woodford’s enthusiasm for his subject carries Great White. “A world without a one-ton fish,” he writes, “is not a world I want.” FL
Macmillan, 256pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "James Woodford, Great White". Subscribe here.