Sharks Under Attack
an interview with Peter Benchley

by Julie Clay

AUTHOR AND MARINE ACTIVIST Peter Benchley comes to Southwest Florida in for two speaking engagements in January sponsored by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. On January 19 he will be speaking at Gulf Coast High School in Naples and on January 20 at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers. Presentations begin at 7pm both nights. The topic will be ‘Vanishing Giants: The Endangered Predators of the Sea”

After graduating Harvard in 1969, Benchley worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, associate editor of Newsweek, and speechwriter for President Johnson.

He soon began work on a novel based on an idea he’d had about an oversize great white with a matching taste for human. “I’ve known about sharks since I was a child,” Benchley recalls during a recent interview. “In 1964 I’d read a story about a man catching a 4,550 pound shark off Long Island and thought, ‘what if a shark that size showed up and wouldn’t go away?’”

He didn’t pursue the idea until 1971, writing his signature novel, Jaws, between assignments just to see if he could do it; and in 1974 the world was introduced to a darker view of the ocean. When Steven Spielberg’s movie version brought the book to life the following year, Benchley found himself an object of cult status, never mind that permanent fixture of our social psyche, that foreboding “da DA, da DA” accompanying each shark attack in the movie.

His original screenplays for Jaws and his sophomore novel, The Deep (1976), served to expand his career into writing, producing, hosting, and narrating for the big and small screens. In addition to his eight novels, he has written a children’s book, several nonfiction titles, and a Smithsonian Museum exhibit companion. Benchley also continues to write for newspapers and magazines, including National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler, in which an article earned him the 2003 Lowell Thomas Gold Award for adventure-travel writing.

Partly due to the success of Jaws and the terror it ignited, Benchley became a champion for oceanic preservation as well as informing the public that great white sharks are a bit more discerning in their quest for food than the boat-attacking star of the film suggested.

“I find that simply writing about problems with the ocean is not satisfactory. Once in a while you get a tangible result. A piece of legislation might be delayed,” he says. “I’ve fought against the Freedom to Fish bills. You occasionally see a concerted response from that. But sometimes more often than not it’s doing it for the sake of doing it.”

He and his wife traveled around the world in 2000 with Wild Aid, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing direct protection for wildlife in danger and ending the illegal wildlife trade for good, in order to persuade people to keep shark meat out of soup production.

However, ocean preservation is number one on his list of concerns. He relates a troubling fact, “Less then 5% of the ocean has been seen,” he states. “If we don’t do anything about the oceans soon there will be a moment of irretrievable catastrophe—things like sea levels rising and other melting that can have drastic effects on communities worldwide from the polar bears to seals, sea lions and fish populations.”

Benchley has been able to gain exposure to this worldwide problem via collaboration with the New England Aquarium, whereby he has created and continues to produce an ongoing, award-winning series of short films shown in hundreds of aquariums and museums around the world to educate visitors about critical issues such as global warming, endangered marine species, and bycatch.

Benchley is also a spokesman for the Center for Sustainable Fisheries at the University of Miami and a member of the National Council of Environmental Defense, whose mission is to call attention to the need for marine reserves, better fisheries management, and a worldwide effort to conserve threatened ocean resources.

“Because of this (presidential) administration and general tenor of the country the oceans have gotten short shrift the past few years,” he says, continuing that NASA’s budget a few years ago was five times that of NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). “It seems that sending machines to Mars was more important than taking care of the oceans.”

One has to wonder if Benchley has ever had a run-in of his own with something wielding a lot of teeth in the sea. “Since writing Jaws, I’ve been lucky enough to do close to forty television shows about wildlife in the oceans, and yes, I have been attacked by sea creatures once in a while,” he says. “I was almost bitten by sharks a couple of times. The most serious time was in the Bahamas when an oceanic white-tip shark made a run at me because I was bleeding from my leg, having been caught in a fisherman’s line. The shark tried to bite me and I tried to hit him in the eye with a stick, but instead I hit him in the mouth. He grabbed the stick, which was attached to my wrist, and ran away with it, shooting through the water and dragging me like a puppet behind him.”

Benchely states for the record, “I’ve never been hurt by a sea creature, except for jellyfish and sea urchins. If you’re careful, you don’t have to worry about being attacked by sea creatures. I have been frightened by sharks and moray eels and killer whales and sperm whales, but never hurt.”

Jaws forever changed the way we looked at the ocean, or any swimming area for that matter. For Jaws, The Deep and other books that followed about the sea, Benchley has been called “the preeminent mythologist of our time.” He brings 30 years of marine conservation, adventure diving, movie making and yes, shark tales, to his upcoming appearances.

For information about both dates of Peter Benchley’s presentations, ‘Vanishing Giants: The Endangered Predators of the Sea”, please call the Conservancy of Southwest Florida at 403-4216.

from the January-February 2005 issue

“It seems that sending machines to Mars was more important than taking care of the oceans.”