The Great White Shark Scientist
(Scientists in the Field Series)
HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN 978-0544352988
“They’re laid back. They’re calm. They’re beautiful.” That’s shark researcher Greg Skomal’s assessment of great whites, the subject of Montgomery’s latest entry in the long-running Scientists in the Field series. Here, she invites her readers to appreciate the glory of these much-feared sharks, first through the work of scientists who use video recordings and tags to identify and then track individual sharks who spend summers off Cape Cod, and then with a diving expedition off Guadalupe, Mexico. This acclaimed nature writer’s particular strength is that she’s not afraid to describe scientific drudge work, giving a rounded picture of what being a field scientist is like. She chooses examples carefully and structures her six smoothly written chapters to build to a crescendo of excitement, going from an unproductive day (and some dull but important safety details) to a very satisfying one and then to an up-close encounter with sharks from the vantage point of a shark cage. Informational segments, including some intriguing facts and surprising statistics, separate each chapter. She picks out details that will engage her middle school readers. Ellenbogen’s photographs, both close-up and from the perspective of a spotter plane, bring readers even closer to her experience. This appreciative introduction to a much-maligned species will thrill readers while it encourages them to see great white sharks in a new way.
—Kirkus, Starred Review
The great white shark is widely feared, but little understood, a situation that some scientists set out to change one bit of data at a time. Sibert Medal–winning writer Montgomery and marine photographer Keith Ellenbogen introduce a team of researchers led by biologist Greg Skomal. After photographing, identifying, and tagging individual sharks around Cape Cod, the scientists study their movements over time. The book takes readers along on several expeditions with Greg’s team as they search for great white sharks, discuss them, and sometimes identify individuals. Descriptions of what’s happening on board the boats, along with quoted conversations, offer vivid glimpses of shark research. In the last chapter, Montgomery and Ellenbogen observe the sharks up close, from a cage lowered into the Pacific off the coast of Mexico. Readers interested in marine biology in general or great white sharks in particular will find the text informative and the you-are-there immediacy of the writing exciting. The photos, which include aerial and underwater shots, are excellent, and the fact that they illustrate this particular text, rather than simply offering pictures of sharks, strengthens the book as a whole. From the Scientists in the Field series, here’s a fine addition to the ever-popular shark shelf.
—Booklist, Starred Review
The Great White Shark Scientist is a powerfully persuasive book... about the trials and tribulations that confront Greg and his team in, first and foremost, just locating sharks to study. The search involves a small plane, a small boat, good weather, a team to help take videos and tag the creatures, and frequent, fruitless sorties. Sy Montgomery’s compelling prose shows just how much dedication and patience is required. But then, studying sharks also means going out on the waters of Cape Cod on beautiful summer days with a purpose. The thoroughness of Montgomery’s experiential research also included a trip to Guadalupe Island where she came face to jaw with a Great White from a submersible cage. She describes the encounter as a mystical experience: “I felt no fear. No—-held in the embrace of the blue, clear sea, mesmerized by the shark’s fluid beauty, I experience only an overwhelming sense of tranquility.” It is this profound respect for magnificent creatures in their natural habitats that drives a scientist’s painfully slow incremental accumulation of knowledge.
And if you’re a shark-o-phile already, The Great White Shark Scientist provides plenty of data to fan your ardor….
As an educator, my pet peeve is that too many movies are “based on real events,” cashing in on the value of a true story, without showing where and how the filmmakers take dramatic license. “Jaws” put these magnificent animals on everyone’s list of formidable dangers so that the myth becomes the reality. Written for middle schoolers, The Great White Shark Scientist is a convincing attitude changer that adults might find engrossing enough to read at the beach.
—Vicki Cobb, The Huffington Post
Many young shark enthusiasts will agree that Gregory Skomal has the dream job: cruising around the eastern shore of Cape Cod and into Nantucket Sound in scientific pursuit of the great white sharks. The sharks have been feasting on a recent bumper crop of gray seals and generating lots of debate within the Cape’s human communities about whether that’s a good thing. Skomal is bringing scientific fact to that debate with his research, identifying and video recording individual sharks (some of which are already known to be repeat visitors) in the hope of estimating the population and getting a better handle on their territorial range. As in most Scientists in the Field books, a tricky methodology here is thoughtfully presented with focus and accessibility in a way that makes the science easy to understand without turning it into a textbook snooze. Skomal and associates aboard the Aleutian Dream coordinate with a pilot, who is generally better able to spot the torpedo- shaped fish from the air, and from there it’s a race to the scene, a patient wait for the shark to swim close enough to be filmed, and the hope that the jury-rigged equipment will be up to the job. Montgomery and Ellenbogen are along for much of the ride, supplying scientific background, color commentary, and a gallery of photographs. Montgomery goes to great, and often humorous, lengths to put the actual danger of shark-on-human attack into perspective (annual average number of people killed by sharks—11; of sharks killed by people—100,000,000), but when dealing with fish prone to devour their unborn siblings, there’s still ample delight for thrill seekers. A selected bibliography and list of web resources are included.
—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
Gr 5-8– Prepare to be enveloped in saltwater air and dizzying blue water in this latest entry from veteran author Montgomery. A tense opening line delivered by 52-year-old great white shark biologist Greg Skomal is sure to hook readers: “It’s pretty treacherous right here.” But as they will soon discover, for Skomal and team, the even greater danger is not seeing a great white at all. Montgomery deftly balances information and intrigue without delving into the sensational; the emphasis is always on providing unique insight into the fieldwork of scientists and the absolute patience and perseverance it takes to locate, identify, gather, and analyze scientific data under challenging circumstances. Her travels with Skomal and her journey into a shark cage with biologist Erick Higuera are evidence of a genuine interest in understanding great whites and reversing negative attitudes about them. Readers will come to learn that the perceived danger surrounding sharks does not always match reality (the prime example offered being the astounding number of Americans injured by toilets in comparison to shark-related deaths in a year) and that these creatures are in desperate need of quality protection and conservation efforts. Ellenbogen’s crystal clear photographs range from intimate shots of crew members and aquatic life to large aerial overviews of the inlets and waters they are sailing on—students will be sure to stop and linger over these gorgeous images. Exceptionally written and highly recommended for those looking to give a timely summer boost to STEM collections.
—School Library Journal, Starred Review
Shark biologist Greg Skomal and his research team search for great whites in the waters off Cape Cod and Guadalupe in this exciting addition to the Scientists in the Field series. Their quest is as much about finding and tagging new sharks as it is about tracing the movements of old friends: by checking detector buoys that record the presence of tagged sharks, the scientists learn who has been in the area. Aerial photographs show the shadowy shapes of sharks below the waves, and underwater shots taken in Guadalupe reveal sharks surrounding the scientists’ submersible cage. Interspersed between chapters are sections that discuss shark anatomy, behavior, and statistics. Montgomery’s play-by-play narration and Ellenbogen’s dramatic photos give the scientific excursion a thrilling sense of immediacy that should leave readers feeling like they’re along for the voyage. Ages 10–12
Biologist Greg Skomal studies great white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod, using a variety of technologies, including video and telemetry, to document their burgeoning population as the marine ecology of Cape Cod changes. Montgomery and photographer Ellenbogen join Skomal aboard research ships and planes, then back in the lab, documenting, in a nearly real-time account, six days of scientific adventure in Massachusetts (and in the waters off Guadalupe Island, in Mexico, where the author meets sharks close-up in a shark cage and learns about documentation efforts by scientists in that region), plus one day of critical data analysis. One minute Montgomery recounts the technical details of shark tracking, the next minute relays the steps she needs to take to be safe on the ocean, and the next narrates an all-out shark chase, as researchers on a boat and in a plane work together in a successful shark identification bonanza. This approach fully immerses readers in the field research experience, as do the excellent photographs of people, sharks, and the environment. In, on, and especially above the ocean, Ellenbogen captures the majesty of the great whites as well as the beauty and impermanence of the Atlantic barrier islands, dunes, and shoreline. Text interludes include descriptions of shark anatomy and consideration of the relationship between local residents, sharks, and the tourist industry. Appended with maps, shark facts, a selected bibliography, web resources, and an index.
—The Horn Book
If a shark comes in the cage,” said Erick–and this really got our attention–“stay away from the mouth and teeth.”
And then, everyone’s attention focuses to our right. Perhaps a hundred feet away, something is happening. It seems that in an instant, the ocean itself gathers into the shape of a shark. The water has been made flesh and is swimming toward us. We can see from the claspers that this is a male.
I remember reading Richard Ellis’s account of an experience in a shark cage. “If there is one thing burned into your mind it is the image of white teeth in a gaping mouth large enough to swallow a child.”
But our shark’s mouth is not gaping. He seems to be smiling. His skin is blindingly bright: gleaming silver, like a knight in white satin. He moves through the water effortlessly, a combination of controlled power and balletic grace. I have never seen anyone so elegant. I feel no fear. Held in the embrace of the blue, clear sea, mesmerized by the shark’s fluid beauty, I experience only an overwhelming sense of tranquility.
Shark scientists never forget such moments, but their work is not always so spectacular. In Sy Montgomery’s latest in the outstanding Scientists in the Field series, The Great White Shark Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series), we follow marine biologist Greg Skomal at work in two areas, the shallows off Cape Cod in Massachusetts in summer and Guadalupe Island, off the west coast of Mexico in winter, as they seek out the Great White, not as sport but as serious scientists trying to document the numbers, habits, and life cycle of this illusive big fish. After the scary success of the movie “Jaws!” great whites were deemed man-eaters and hunted down in the summer waters around the Cape, with, as usual, unforeseen consequences. Seals gradually became became common visitors in the area, filling up beaches, and gobbling up the sport fish that thousands of fishermen flock to the Cape to catch. It seems without the sharks, seals swarm the area and get the bulk of the haul, with further damage to the local ecology–and economy.
Enter the shark scientist Greg Skomal and his staff, who spend the warm summer days in the pedestrian work of shark counting, shark tagging, and shark identification. Atlantic great whites migrate up and down the North American east coastline, with occasional “holiday” jaunts eastward to the Caribbean Islands, (or even mid-Atlantic) but scientists currently have no idea where they mate or give live birth to their pups, and Skomal has the tantalizing theory that perhaps the coast off Massachusetts may be that place.
Summer shark trackers work with aircraft spotters who can see the sharks better from on high, and in their fast boats the shark scientists hone in on each one. With GoPro cameras and sonar, they attempt to discover if they recognize an old friend, a tagged shark whose implanted device “pings” its location as it journeys from the tropics to the North Atlantic each year. If a new, untagged shark is spotted, it is the job of Greg and his crew catch them near enough to the surface to tag them with a long gig pole. At times, the crew has to get up close and personal with smaller sharks, holding them by hand to implant the tags. From long hours spent in the hazardous and shallows around the Cape emerges the data which they crunch to track the elusive big sharks on their yearly voyages.
But when the Cape Cod shark season ends, the shark scientists turn to the tropical waters off Central America and Mexico where other great whites winter, and in those crystal clear waters they get to observe and record their favorite big fish close up from submerged shark cages–the real fun of being a shark-loving marine biologist. And out of their groundbreaking studies has come a new way of looking at the great white shark.
“It was calming and humbling,” said one young student. “Having seen them, my yearning to protect them has definitely grown, Now I would absolutely loved to see them thriving.”
Winner of the American Library Association’s Siebert Award for excellence in nonfiction for young people, Sy Montgomery’s The Great White Shark Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series) tells it like is when it comes to doing marine biology and shows that intimidating animal as one important link in the life cycle of the seas.
It’s not all heart-thumping encounters with those giant raptors of the seas; a lot of it, as in any science, is dogged documentation of data, combined with the necessary ability to see the big picture and retain a passion for what they do, and the author catches that quality well. Keith Ellenbogen adds stunning color photographs to each page, and Montgomery does her usual solid job of providing substantiating backmatter–maps, bibliography, web resources, and an index which indicates related illustrations. A must-have for libraries and great white shark fans.
Sy Montgomery offers a fascinating look at biologist Dr. Greg Skomal and his team and their work tracking, identifying, tagging, and filming the feared Great White Sharks, first in the waters off Chatham, Mass. (where the beach has a sign declaring “Chatham loves shahks”) and then off Guadalupe. Skomal defends the great whites as misunderstood, saying they are “not hyper, all curmudgeonly and angry and wanting to kill something.” Montgomery’s lively narrative shows the hard work and uncertainty involved in documenting this elusive creature. Thanks to the tags showing the sharks’ locations, they learn that a 14-foot-long, one-ton great white named Lydia, first tagged in 2013 in Jacksonville, Fla., had traveled more than 25,000 miles, from Jacksonville to Cape Cod, to Georgia, then Mississippi, in eight days crossing half the Atlantic. The spectacular photos include a fascinating one taken from the air, offering a clearer image of the shark in the water than was afforded the crew in the boat.
—The Buffalo News
Youth Services Book Review:
Rating: 1-5: 5+
To whom would you recommend this book? Highly recommended for upper elementary and middle school students looking for an outstanding shark book. Recommended also for upper elementary and middle school ELA and science teachers for an excellent example of an engrossing narrative non-fiction mentor text.
Who should buy this book? Elementary school libraries, middle school libraries and public libraries.
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes, near the top.
— Mary Melaugh (Marshall Middle School Library, Billerica, Mass.)