The West

Book Review: Shark
Hugh Edwards’ book tries to find out what makes the shark tick. Picture: Supplied

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, Hugh Edwards - renowned Perth treasure-ship hunter, pioneer scuba-diver, and author - publishes his latest book, Shark. More than a catalogue of gruesome and harrowing shark attacks, it is a fascinating attempt, based on half a century of experience with the creatures, to understand what makes the shark tick - and attack.

The book has a beguiling chemistry. It is a superbly crafted blend of first-hand reportage of the most vivid kind - Edwards has gone one-on-one with deadly great whites in a number of contexts - linked to marine science and pelagic ecology, with an admixture of shark folklore. It is also a fascinating memoir of Edwards' life-long love affair with the rugged, shark-haunted WA coast and its natural and maritime history.

There is an art to this kind of journalism. It consists in being able to marshal a wide range of empirical material - scientific, human-interest, statistical - and deliver it in an engaging storytelling mode for a general audience. He has taken the style of his literary mentor, the bestselling Ion Idriess, to new heights.

Edwards ranges from the minutiae of the shark world to the prehistoric and monstrous. At the smaller end of the spectrum, here is his succinct catalogue of shark teeth: "Tiger sharks have sickle-shaped teeth for biting through turtle shell. Makos have teeth like pointed fingers for seizing fast-swimming tuna, grey nurse sharks have snaggle-teeth for snagging salmon, while whaler sharks have triangular teeth able to handle anything, including the leg of a human swimmer." Later, the reader encounters something bigger - prehistoric megalodon, a distant relative of the great white, up to 30m long and sporting 18cm teeth. As Edwards notes, it is a "creature beyond the bounds of our imagination". Is it really extinct?

There have been 877 recorded shark attacks in Australia since 1901, and while a sleek shoal of sharks haunts this book, the one that dominates is the great white. Known to science as Carcharadon carcharias, it is at the apex of the shark hierarchy, and was named by the ancient Greeks more than 2000 years ago. The name means "ragged teeth". "A great white tooth can shave the hairs off your arm, or sever a diver's leg at the hip," Edwards notes.

He dubs it the "Darth Vader of the shark world".

Edwards first encountered a great white as a newspaper reporter for _The West Australian _. It was dead and hanging from the Fremantle traffic bridge. His mate Ted "Sharkey" Nelson had caught it.

His account of his first eyeball-to-eyeball encounter in the water is hair-raising stuff. The film Jaws had just been released. A friend suggested it would be a good time to make a documentary about sharks. Edwards agreed and ended up occupying a shark-cage in the blood-murky, shark-infested water off Cheyne Beach whaling station near Albany.

Among the attacks covered here is the terrifying example of survivor Rodney Fox. His torso was ripped open at Aldinga Beach in South Australia, almost certainly by a great white.

In a well-reasoned chapter Edwards argues that prime minister Harold Holt's disappearance at Cheviot Beach, in December 1962, is probably attributable to the species. His examination of overseas cases is fascinating, too.

For example, the so-called "mad shark" attacks of July 1916 pushed news of World War I off newspaper front pages in the US. Four people were killed in five days at New Jersey beach towns.

Other chapters in the book cover sharks and the working diver, as well as an intriguing discussion of the quest for a shark repellent.

There is also a chapter devoted to the mammoth vegetarian cousins of the great white, the whale sharks of Ningaloo Reef. As Edwards notes, like sharks, shark stories come in all shapes and sizes.

This book is a cornucopia of them and an engrossing read, supported by a range of stunning photographs.

The West Australian

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