Shark vs penguin

by Rebecca Priestley / 22 December, 2014
Two top holiday reads reveal sharks aren’t really out to get us and some penguins are sex-mad.
shark, penguins
Who knew? Turns out sharks are docile and penguins may be sexual deviants. Photos/Thinkstock

In August 2012, I found myself snorkelling with several Galapagos sharks in the subtropical waters of Raoul Island. Every other time I’d been snorkelling, the rule was “If you see a shark, get out of the water”, but this time was different. We weren’t there to see sharks – the scientists I was with were collecting seaweed, coral and starfish – but Department of Conservation shark scientist Clinton Duffy had said shark encounters were possible and there was no reason to be scared.

It turned out that the first creature I saw when I entered the water was a shark. I felt fear and fascination in equal measure as two, three, then four sharks appeared in the waters below me. Eventually the fear won and I was first back in the boat.

In Shark Man, Riley Elliott confronts head on people’s fear of sharks, opening his book with the fatal 2013 attack on Adam Strange at Muriwai Beach. Shark attacks, though, are rare – there have been only 44 in New Zealand’s recorded history, 11 of them fatal. Humans are a much greater threat to sharks. Elliot describes them as “quite docile and harmless animals”.

His credentials are good – he is a surfer, a spear-fisher and host of the TVNZ show Shark Man and has studied sharks in South Africa and New Zealand. In the book he talks about his own experiences with sharks and advocates for better protection of these apex predators. “For people to understand sharks, they need the right information. With the right information, that fear can turn to fascination,” he says. Elliott has an engaging and immediate style, and has written an entertaining and, yes, fascinating first-person account.

Lloyd Spencer Davis, author of Professor Penguin: Discovery and Adventure with Penguins, is at the other end of his career to Elliott, and the creatures he studies are at the opposite end of the cuteness scale. Whereas Elliott is working on a PhD at the University of Auckland, Davis is a leader in his field: he’s professor of science communication at the University of Otago, with a three-decade career as a zoologist – or as he puts it, he’s an “accidental penguin biologist”.

Davis has been writing award-winning books about penguins for years. But Professor Penguin is more than another bird book. Although it is promoted as revealing “the secret lives of penguins”, it’s as much about the secret lives of scientists.

He documents the way a penguin scientist works: through quiet observation, trial and error, and with equal measures of physical hardship and “freaking awesome” experiences in some of the world’s most remote and spectacular locations, such as Cape Bird, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands and the Antipodes Islands.

As well as Davis’s own story, each of the book’s 27 chapters includes a profile of a historical or contemporary penguin scientist. From George Murray Levick, whose 1911-12 observations of the “sexual shenanigans” of the Adélie penguins of Antarctica’s Cape Adare had to be censored for his Victorian audience, to Lance Richdale, who spent months camped out on the Otago Peninsula watching the “love habits” of the yellow-eyed penguin, Davis’s acknowledgement of other Professor Penguins adds depth to the book and puts his work into a wider historical and scientific context.

science booksBoth of these books are great reads: enjoyable, informative and revealing. Forget the predictable biographies of politicians and sports stars this holiday-reading season – in my book the life of a scientist is much more gripping.

SHARK MAN, by Riley Elliott (Random House, $39.99); PROFESSOR PENGUIN, by Lloyd Spencer Davis (Random House, $39.99).

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