When it really comes right down to it, there are two basic types of natural history guidebooks: those that help you to identify things you saw and those that teach you about the existence of things you’ll likely never see. Most fall into the first category; field guides to birds, butterflies, flowering plants, and so forth; however a smaller but no less significant number make up the latter. And it is these “guides to things unseen” that are often the most interesting.

When I was a boy growing up in a small coastal town along the north Oregon coast, both my father and mother worked in the commercial fishing industry. Thus it wasn’t particularly surprising that my favorite book all through elementary school (and indeed still to this day) was an old battered copy of the Golden Guide Fishes; A Guide to Familiar American Species by Herbert S. Zim, Hurst H. Shoemaker, and (most importantly, illustrated by) James Gordon Irving. In this book, which I had all but continuously checked out from the school library and carried ready-at-hand in my pocket throughout each year of my attendance at Captain Robert Gray Elementary, I discovered a vast array of fascinating creatures living beneath the waves – some right below the surface of the lower Columbia River on which my dad sailed our family’s fishing boat. Yet was it not for this book, I would have never known that most of them existed.

So it is with A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World, the most recently published volume in the easily-pocketable Princeton Pocket Guides series from Princeton University Press. Written by David A. Ebert and Sarah Fowler, and illustrated by Marc Dando, this new guidebook is not only a superb resource for scientists and divers who may need or wish to identify one or more of the 501 species of sharks to be found in the planet’s vast oceans (all 501 of which are included in the book), it is a welcoming open doorway for naturalists, students, and the simply curious through which discover the existence of an astonishing variety of sharks that, were it not for such guidebooks as this, would remain unknown to all but a handful of researchers and the odd fisherman.

Yet far more than simply telling of its subjects’ existence, A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World communicates to its readers an understanding of the Orders and Families in which the species are grouped (including a very useful key to aid in their identification), how they can be distinguished one from another, how their teeth can be identified, and – in a wholly unexpected, bold, and, quite frankly, truly inspired section on shark fins – what a serious threat so many shark species face from the trade in their dorsal fins and why their conservation is so vitally important to the health of the planet’s seas.

Then of course there are the illustrations. From the generally familiar requiem and hammerhead sharks to such little know families as the kitefin and bullhead sharks – which differ so much from the common view of what sharks look like as to be scarcely recognizable as such – all are expertly depicted in Marc Dando’s full color illustrations. And as seeing a four inch image on a page can give the viewer a mental picture of what something looks like but still may leave its reality somewhat abstract, a very clever relational silhouette is included on or adjacent to each plate depicting the size of the sharks there depicted in relation to a human being.

What with sharks being so widely misunderstood, so grossly misrepresented by the popular media, and in far to many cases  – often as a result of the two just noted problems – so very much endangered, a book such a A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World, which effectively presents so much easy to understand information about these fascinating creatures in so compact and accessible a format, is a book that should be considered essential in the libraries of all naturalists as well as in public and school libraries, classrooms, and indeed, homes the world over, so that while the creatures it describes may continue in many cases to remain unseen in their ocean habitats they will nonetheless there continue to swim.

Pocket Guide Sharks World coverTitle: A Pocket Guide to Sharks of the World

Authors: David A. Ebert, Sarah Fowler & Marc Dando

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Series: Princeton Pocket Guides

Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9780691165998

Pages: 256 pp. with 80 color plates plus 50 additional color & b&w illustrations and 1 map

Published: March 2015

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.