10 Favorite Shark Books of All Time

As a shark biologist, I rely heavily on technical papers and scholarly books to expand my knowledge base and contextualize my experiences in the laboratory and field. Although I greatly enjoy learning new things, especially if I can apply them to this or that research project, many technical works are - truth be told - not all that much fun to read for their own sake.

Over the years, however, I have discovered a number of nicely written books that are a joy to re-read or just to browse through, dipping in casually here or there as something catches one's attention. Rediscovering these books is a bit like visiting with a long-lost friend. Suddenly, one is transported back to an earlier time in life only to find that the book hasn't changed, the reader has. Some books I formerly thought brilliantly original now seem trite or derivative. But a precious few manage to remain fun to re-read and rediscover year after year.

Below are capsule reviews of my 10 favorite shark books of all time. Winnowing down my 350 or so shark books to just these 10 favorites was highly subjective and far from easy (which is why the list of my Top Ten includes 20 titles!). It was difficult to separate my enthusiasm for the most useful books from the simpler, subtler joy of a pleasant read. The books selected here are generally not the most useful of shark books, but they are the ones that I most enjoy re-reading to this day.

Happy reading. 

10 Honorable Mentions (just too good to leave out):

Sharks, by Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder.  1948.  Chapter 3 In Fishes of the Western North Atlantic, Vol. 1:  Lancelets, Cyclostomes, and Sharks. Sears Foundation for Marine Research, Yale University, New Haven.  pp 53-576.
Following the obligatory review of each species' taxonomic history and morphological characters is a wonderfully eclectic narrative that often features weird and wonderful anecdotal material you just can't find anywhere else. Out-of-Print

The Lady and the Sharks, by Eugenie Clark. 1969. Harper & Row, New York. 269 pp.  
A wonderfully personal account of Clark's experiences managing the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory and some of her pioneering shark research.  Nicely written, always fascinating, and often downright inspiring.  Out-of-Print

Great White Shark, by Richard Ellis and John E. McCosker.  1991.  Harper Collins/Stanford University Press, Stanford.  270 pp.
A splendid overview of the natural and human history of the White Shark, with a heavy emphasis on the long, complex and often bloody relationship between Carcharodon carcharias and Homo sapiens.  Beautifully written and lavishly illustrated with photos by Al Giddings and others.

Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, by Peter Mattheissen.  1971.  Random House, New York.  204 pp.
Insider's view of the tale of how film-maker Peter Gimbel traveled the globe in search of the White Shark for his feature film.  Some absolutely glorious writing that describes the awesome presence of the White Shark and the hardships of making a documentary at sea.

Harpoon at a Venture, by Gavin Maxwell. 1952. Rupert Hart-Davis, London . 272 pp.
A rousing personal account of Maxwell's years as a commercial Basking Shark fisherman off Scotland, including some wonderfully evocative writing and fascinating Appendices in which the author discusses the Basking Shark's role in 'sea monster' mythology and disagrees with several pronouncements of the leading Basking Shark researchers of the day. Out-of-Print

Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas, by David G. Stead. 1963. Angus & Robertson, Sydney. 211 pp.
A splendid compilation of personal observation and anecdote about this region's rich elasmobranch fauna - includes a now-classic account of a ghostly white, 100+ foot shark that some believe might have been a living megalodon (Yeah, right.).  Fun stuff.  Out-of-Print

Shark:  a Photographer's Story, by Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch.  1987.  Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.   200 pp.
A highly personal account of traveling the globe in search of sharks to photograph, punctuated by absolutely gorgeous images of sharks in the wild.  As his beautifully lit and composed photos show, Stafford-Deitch is the Karsh of Sharks, but his text reveals that he is also a fine and observant marine naturalist.

Whale Sharks: the Giants of Ningaloo Reef, by Goeff Taylor.  1994.  Angus & Robertson, Sydney.  176 pp.
A wonderfully personal synopsis of the author's field research off Exmouth, Western Australia, combined with a summary of what is known about the life history of the Whale Shark and considerable background on Ningaloo Reef.  Illustrated in color with the author's excellent underwater photographs.  Out-of-Print

Great Shark Stories, edited by Ron & Valerie Taylor with Peter Goadby. 1978.  Collins, London. 329 pp.
A terrific anthology drawn from contributing authors' personal experiences, classic and not-so-classic literature, and even  scientific reports. Idiosyncratic in both style and content, but great fun. Re-released under the title, Great Shark Writings.

The Fishes of Australia: Part 1, The Sharks, Rays, Devil-Fish, and Other Primitive Fishes of Australia and New Zealand, by Gilbert Percy Whitley. 1940. Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Sydney.  280 pp.
A taxonomic nightmare, but mixed among the confused science is a great deal of weird and wonderful anecdotal material from the Austral region that one simply cannot find anywhere else.  Fascinating!  Out-of-Print

Focus on Sharks
, by Sarah H. Riedman and Elton T. Gustafson. 1969. Abelard-Schuman, New York. 256 pp.

Originally written for young adults, this book does an admirable job summarizing much of then-recent scientific findings about sharks, presenting a great deal of material in crisp, clear prose. Although some of the material is rather dated, this book conveys the excitement and challenge of the early days of doing shark research and places the discoveries in the larger contexts of paleontology, zoology, medicine, commerce, and public safety. The authors skillfully balance depth and breadth of their treatment in a way that is rarely matched in more recent shark books. Well illustrated with over 100 black-and-white photos and drawings that complement the text nicely. Out-of-Print


About Sharks and Shark Attack
, by David H. Davies. 1964. Hobbs, Dorman & Co., New York. 237 pp.

Although the focus of this book is rather heavily on shark attacks, the material on shark biology and research is exceptionally clear and detailed. Davies skillfully summarizes basic shark biology and translates into clear, accessible prose much then cutting-edge research conducted by himself and his colleagues at the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban, South Africa. This research includes work on keeping sharks in captivity, shark growth rates and migration, measuring shark heart rates, testing sharks' hearing and reaction to electrical stimuli. There is also a chapter dedicated to providing brief answers to common questions about sharks and shark attacks. The book is illustrated with over 60 black-and-white photos, many showing aspects of shark anatomy and pioneering research methods rarely seen elsewhere. It's tough to find a copy nowadays, but well worth the effort.  Out-of-Print


Sharks: an Inquiry into Biology, Behavior, Fisheries and Use
, edited by Sid Cook. 1987. Oregon State University Extension Service, Portland. 237 pp.

Containing the collected papers of talks presented at a shark conference held at Oregon State University during October 1985, this book features aspects of shark-human interaction not found in other symposium volumes. For example, there are papers on the significance of sharks in human psychology and the role of sharks - and shark experts - in the media. There are also papers on the ecological role of sharks in marine communities, human impacts on shark populations (with special reference to neotropical freshwater sharks and sawfishes), the forensic study of shark attacks, fisheries and use of deep-sea sharks in Japan, and an absolutely terrific review of shark behavior. Although some of the papers are illustrated with black-and-white figures, production values of the overall volume are rather low - perhaps to keep costs down and help make the book available for its very modest pricetag. But there can be no question that this collection of papers is among the most diverse and interesting of symposium volumes.


Tigers of the Sea: Hawaii's Deadly Sharks, by Jim Borg. 1993. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu. 88 pp.

Documenting the social, economic, political, and ecological repercussions of a spate of recent Tiger Shark attacks in Hawaiian waters, this book explores - better than anything I have read to date - the many, complex facets of how different community interests can collide over what to do about 'dangerous' sharks. Local fishermen advocated catching as many big Tiger Sharks as possible in the hope of removing the attacking individual(s), while influential native Hawaiian families insisted that Tiger Sharks hold a special spiritual significance for them and that killing them is unacceptable. In between these opposing groups are politicians who simply want to keep the public peace and marine biologists who attest that Tiger Sharks typically move huge distances between islands and that any attacking shark is probably many miles away. A few photos of the major players in the story are included. But it is the diversity of facts and opinions revealed as the story unfolds that is utterly fascinating.


Myth and Maneater: the Story of the Shark
, by David Kenyon Webster. 1962. W.W. Norton and Co., New York. 223 pp.

This is a grossly underappreciated book. Although superficially it doesn't look too impressive, it is very nicely written and - on careful reading - it contains a great deal of original information not found anywhere else. The reason for this originality owes much to the fact that the author corresponded with an incredible diversity of people from all over the globe having some manner of professional interest in sharks: scientists in Norway, fisheries officers in the Philippines, military personnel in Japan, divers in New Zealand, information officers in India, surfers in South Africa, lifeguards in Hawaii, ministers of natural resources in Fiji, and chambers of commerce in Florida. As a result, this book contains a rich variety of facts, theories, anecdotes, and perspectives that gives an unusually balanced account of the complex relationship between man and shark. An insert of black-and-white photos includes some interesting and unusual images. If I have one criticism about this book it's that it lacks an index, which makes it difficult to find a particular neat fact or account. But the book is so well written, it's a pleasure to re-discover other fascinating tidbits while trying to locate the one(s) sought.  Out-of-Print


Sharks in Question: the Smithsonian Answer Book
, by Victor G. Springer and Joy P. Gold. 1989. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 187 pp.

Arranged in an attractive, logically-sequenced Question-and-Answer format, this book is terrific as a quick reference or just great fun to browse through. The answers are concise but fairly comprehensive, written in clear, non-condescending prose, and feature multiple references to the primary literature for those who wish to pursue a matter beyond the scope of the book. The authors are at their most enjoyable when speculating, cautiously, about questions for which science has not yet determined a clear-cut answer. The appendices feature a handy table listing the maximum known sizes of selected sharks and an annotated classification listing the 368 species of sharks known at the time of printing. Illustrated with over 100 black-and-white photographs and drawings plus an insert of color plates which, together, show many species and aspects of research methodology that usually don't make it into popular shark books. An excellent index and bibliography add greatly to the book's value as a reference. One caveat, however: the spine of the soft-bound edition has a disconcerting tendency to split, causing the color plates to fall out; this problem does not occur in the hard-bound edition.


Sharks of Polynesia
, by Richard H. Johnson. 1978. Les Editions du Pacifique, Papeete. 170 pp.

One of the best books about shark behavior ever written. Johnson, who worked closely with Donald Nelson on several shark research projects, nicely summarizes shark sensory biology and general patterns of shark behavior, provides an identification guide to the 17 most commonly encountered sharks of the central Pacific, reviews the life history of each, and then draws heavily on his own experience to describe their disposition and behavior patterns. Includes many exciting accounts of the author's personal experiences, much detailed first-hand information about shark behavior, and stunning underwater photographs - many by Johnson. A terrific, highly informative read.  Re-released under the title, Sharks of Tropical and Temperate Seas.


Shadows in the Sea: the Sharks, Skates and Rays
, by Harold W. McCormick, Tom Allen, and Captain William Young. 1963. Sidgwick and Jackson, London. 415 pp.

This is one of the most consistently surprising shark books ever written. The science is very dated, but there's so much fascinating material on strange fishing stories, exotic myths and legends from far-flung parts of the South Seas, bizarre historical coincidences, and much, much more, that it simply doesn't matter. The book also includes a wonderful survey of chondrichthyan diversity, seasoning straight-forward natural history with strange tales of interaction of these fishes with humans. As a result, the book reads more like Ripley's Believe it or Not or a Medieval bestiary than a serious reference, but all the quaint tales seem to be drawn from fairly reputable sources, such as newspapers and official government documents. A great source of tidbits to spice up any shark-related article or cocktail party story. Well illustrated with over 100 black-and-white photos and drawings.  Slightly-updated and re-released under the same title, but with Allen listed as the sole author.


The Book of Sharks
, by Richard Ellis. 1976. Grosset and Dunlap, New York. 320 pp.

This is probably the most popular shark book ever published and the reasons are not hard to fathom. Featuring 20 full-color reproductions of the author's attractive paintings, over 150 black-and-white photos, paintings, and drawings, and passionate - often poetic - text, this book is deservedly still in print and selling well. Ellis writes with an endearing and unabashed enthusiasm, seeming very and sincerely eager to share all the neat stuff he has learned about sharks. Although the text has been somewhat revised in subsequent printings, I prefer the first edition above all others. Almost a third of first edition consists of detailed and fascinating profiles of "Shark People", diverse individuals who - in one way or another - are professionally involved with sharks; this section has been greatly reduced in subsequent editions. Another feature of the first edition I miss from later editions is an appendix on notes about the color plates, in which Ellis explains something of what he was trying to convey in each painting. In text and paintings, Ellis' passion and enthusiasm is evident on every page, making this book a sheer delight every time.  First Edition Out-of-Print


The Natural History of Sharks
, by Thomas H. Lineaweaver III and Richard H. Backus. 1970. Lippincott, New York. 256 pp.

Even after more than a dozen re-readings, this remains my absolute, hands-down favorite shark book. Not only has much of the book's science held up reasonably well, but it is also packed full of strange historical and literary tidbits and extremely well written. Its authors are, respectively, a professional writer (With a name like that, what else would he be?) and a marine biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has actually done some significant shark research (notably on hearing in elasmobranchs and on the life history of the Oceanic Whitetip Shark). So the book is both highly accurate and exceptionally well written. But perhaps my favorite aspect of this book is how clearly the authors' shared fascination for sharks is evident on every page. It is well illustrated with black-and-white photos and drawings, including several classic figures from Garman's 1913 masterwork, The Plagiostoma. The Bibliography is broken down by geographical region and the Appendix includes the Greek derivation of scientific names used throughout the text. The Index is detailed and well organized, enhancing this book's value as a reference. For all these reasons, and more, this book is a delight every time I re-read it.


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ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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