When I was a boy, growing up in a family of commercial fishermen, cannery workers, and boat-wrights in a town whose population was predominantly more of the same, one of my favorite places to visit was the local maritime museum. There, on the second floor, among the seemingly uncountable objects reflecting the maritime history not just of the town itself but that of the past few centuries of the Columbia River and indeed the Pacific Ocean, was a reproduction of John Singleton Copley’s famous 1778 painting “Watson and the Shark.” The painting, depicting the story of the attempted 1749 rescue in Havana Harbor of fourteen-year-old Brook Watson from an attacking shark – not to put too fine a point on it – scared the hell out of me.

As the son of a commercial fisherman, I had been going out on the family’s boat since I was eight years old. I had at first watched and latter when I was a bit older helped my father to pull all manner of marine creatures both mundane and exotic out of the depths for years. I knew just how awe-inspiring it was to look over the stern as the net was hauled in and see them emerge from the visually impenetrable depths of grey-green water into the few feet just below the surface where their forms suddenly took shape. And I knew from reading books that I found in the school library about marine life that some of the creatures that inhabited the depths into which I could not see from the deck of our boat were sufficient to inspire genuine fear in even the most stalwart of old fishermen. Thus, needless to say, the image of the open jaws of a large shark emerging from the shadowy waves to engulf the body of a seemingly helpless young man floating in the water was the stuff of darkest nightmares to one who could reasonably posit himself in just such a situation. To this very day I cannot look upon the painting – one that I consider quite beautiful, by the way – without still feeling a chill run down my spine.

Such is the power the image of a shark holds. From long before Copley’s time right up to our own, for a large percentage of people who may have never even been near the sea, much less sailed upon or swam in it, the generic image of a shark can inspire fear. After all, they are masters of an environment into which we as land mammals can only skim the surface and enter only with the aid of considerable technology, without which were are all but helpless. The problem is that the popular image of the generic shark, the mythical jumble of elements drawn from roughly a dozen different shark species both still surviving and extinct, does ill service to the reality of the nearly five hundred actual presently existing shark species. We have, myself included, too often let our imaginations get the better of us when it comes to sharks – and too often it is the sharks, not us, who are the worse for it.

Which is why when a publicist contacted me about Discovery Channel’s book Sharkopedia: The Complete Guide to Everything Shark for possible review in The Well-read Naturalist, I was a bit hesitant. The book, intended to support the channel’s annual, decades-old Shark Week tradition of airing back-to-back programs about sharks (some but not all of which are somewhat less than what a naturalist such as myself might hope for in terms of widely televised natural history themed programming) was not one of which I had previously heard but about which I became immediately suspicious due to its provenance. After all, Discovery Channel, a network that began in 1985 as venue for popular science and nature programming – which I am not in the least ashamed to say that I once very much enjoyed – has in recent years become more well known for the highly lucrative but less than scientifically oriented “reality” genre. However as it also is the network that broadcasts one of the best programs for popularly encouraging the study of engineering and mathematics on U.S. television today – Mythbusters – I made the decision to accept a review copy of Sharkopedia and judge it on its own merits.

Now, first and foremost, for the purposes of this review I considered Sharkopedia apart from the televised programs that make up Shark Week as these change from year to year and the book is a fixed document in time; whatever Discovery Channel choses to broadcast next year will have no effect upon the contents of the book I examined. Second, when I compared what I read in Sharkopedia to the 2013 programming line-up for Shark Week, I found a substantial difference between what Discovery Channel was broadcasting and what was contained in the book; while the former seemed to rely heavily on programming incorporating such sensationalistic title words as “jaws,” killer,” and “bite,” the content of Sharkopedia (not withstanding its gratuitous cover – making it truly a situation in which one should not judge the content of the book) bears more of a resemblance to the colorful, casual, but nevertheless aiming-toward-educational style of many recent aquarium exhibits I’ve seen. What’s more, it reached far beyond the popular species and demonstrated a serious attempt to cover all the world’s sharks equally. This is where it, if you’ll please pardon the pun, hooked me.

The variety of shark species to be found in the world’s oceans is truly remarkable. From the well-known “charismatic” species such as the Great White, Mako, and hammerheads to the popularly all but unknown carpet, cat, and weasel sharks, the myriad sizes, shapes, and ecological niches occupied by these creatures is truly amazing. And when they are considered in their entirely, as is done – admittedly in an introductory but nevertheless complete manner – in Sharkopedia, far from being the stuff of nightmares sharks are given the opportunity to become the inspiration of curiosity.

As a boy, much of my own inspiration to curiosity about natural history came from that brilliant series The Golden Guides; I read and re-read The Golden Guide to Fishes until the pages literally came loose from the binding. However in the decades since, the world has begun to move at a much faster pace. Hand-drawn images and sedate explanatory passages of well-crafted prose (much as I may still love them myself) will likely fail to grasp and hold the majority of today’s young people who have been reared on multi-media immersion. Yet it is these very young people, this enormous group of future adults, that most needs to be given the opportunity to discover the incalculable wonders of the natural world. Even if at the point of initial discovery their only thought may be “Wow, that’s a really cool shark! I didn’t know they could look like that.” the ember may nevertheless be kindled that will someday grow into the light of a much greater knowledge about sharks, their watery habitat, and the inter-relationship between them and us.

Indeed, one of the greatest and most pleasant surprises I discovered in Sharkopedia is the attention given to matters of shark conservation; of the terrible waste involved in the slaughter of sharks through “finning” (catching sharks only to cut off their fins for sale to chefs as ingredients in exotic culinary creations then discarding their still living bodies back into the sea), of the problems faced by many shark species through the destruction of habitat or the depletion of important other species in their respective food chains, and of the degradation of the overall health of the world’s oceans in general. For the purposes of education, the pairing of the chance to discover astonishing creatures with the message that many of them are now at risk is a powerful one – particularly to young people who still retain the ability to be outraged on behalf of the victimized, a quality too many of us lose as we age.

Filled with bold, eye-catching photos of at least representatives of all the world’s genera of sharks if not every single species itself and interlaced with informative, conversational, and most importantly responsible text – in forms varying from conventional paragraphs to “balloon” insertions containing mind-catching facts – explaining their natural history, Sharkopedia is a superb browsing book (although I imagine more than just a few enthusiastic or recently hooked shark fans will no doubt read it cover-to-cover). And for those who after spending a bit of time with it might find themselves curious as to where to turn for additional information, a rich appendix is included giving names, addresses, and websites of organizations and institutions dedicated to research, as well as references of additional books about, sharks.

Much as I was hesitant, even skeptical, about Sharkopedia when it was first brought to my attention, I must in all honesty say that I have found it to be a most entertaining as well as enlightening book. In its pages I have found not only information I did not know about species I did, but I also discovered many I did not but about which I plan to inquire further at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, while I have focused on Sharkopedia as a book for young people, it is very much a book that most anyone with even a passive curiosity about sharks should find enjoyable. The only thing I would change is the cover. While certainly an effective marketing tool and admittedly a draw to many who might benefit from the book’s contents but who might not pick up a book more staidly packaged, it nevertheless promotes a stereotype that its contents go far to overcome. It also gives me the heebie-jeebies; even in the psyche of a long-time naturalist, Copley’s centuries-old image and it’s modern day variations can still elicit powerful effects.

Sharkopedia coverTitle: Sharkopedia: The Complete Guide to Everything Shark
Author: Discovery Channel; Andy Dehart, advisor
Publisher: Time Home Entertainment
Date of Publication: June, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781603209649
Format: Paperback

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.