Pity the shark, so vastly misunderstood. Most are uninterested in human flesh (think of all those spit-out surfers), and their menacing reputation, bolstered by gaping jaws full of teeth, arises largely from a physiological quirk requiring them to swim open-mouthed to take in oxygen. (Biologists call it ram ventilation.)
Sharks, which predate dinosaurs by 200 million years, were once venerated but today are slaughtered by the millions for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in China. This alarming decline drives Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks (Pantheon, $26), a state-of-the-creature survey from Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin, who travels from Florida to Belize to Japan and discovers that over the past half-century, the populations of many shark species have dropped by 90 percent. Eilperin does get in the water—she observes a great white from the safety of a cage in South Africa—but her adventures are peripheral, spice added to an environmental cautionary tale. The most entertaining moments come courtesy of characters like a Papua New Guinea shark caller, who lures the fish with a rattle, stabs it in the eyes, and clubs it to death. And therein lies the problem. Until people are as excited by conservationists' attempts to save this essential predator as they are by its terrifying image, shark populations will continue to plummet.