Peter and Wendy Benchley (Photos courtesy peterbenchley.com)

Earlier this summer, thirty-nine years after the release of the blockbuster movie “Jaws,” news outlets everywhere reported a sharp rise in the population of great white sharks in the western Atlantic Ocean.

Yet nobody seemed too panicked by the news.

What a difference four decades can make. During the heyday of “Jaws,” when the film spawned an international panic about sharks, such reports would have sparked pandemonium, clearing the beaches of swimmers. Yet for the past decade, the numbers of great whites off the coast of California have been rising, and no one seems very concerned. That’s likely because the backlash against shark-phobia has gained momentum, and more people are now aware of how truly rare shark attacks are. According to the International Shark Attack File, only four people died in shark attacks in the United States between 2003 and 2008, compared to 108 cattle-induced fatalities.

Yes, cows are more likely to kill humans than sharks.

Before our culture came to such consciousness, we had “Jaws,” the product of author Peter Benchley and director Steven Spielberg’s voracious appetite for blood-drenched terror at sea. But Benchley, the man who reinvented the great white shark as the nemesis of humanity — a kind of Moby Dick of the modern era — would come to completely disavow this take on sharks.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, Benchley could not escape the carnage in the wake of his creation, and for the latter part of his career committed himself to an all-out assault on shark killing through the conservation movement, until his death in 2006 of pulmonary fibrosis at the age of sixty-five.

Peter Benchley discusses the effects his book "Jaws" had on the world of sharks.

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“Peter was connected to the ocean all the way from when he was a young child,” his widow Wendy Benchley recalled in a recent interview. Wendy, who has forged her own career in environmental politics and policy, says Peter grew up in a literary family and was “always a sensitive human being.”

In 1964, news of a 4,550-pound great white shark caught off the coastal community of Montauk on Long Island in New York initially ignited Benchley’s imagination. A blue-blooded New Englander raised in the summers on Nantucket, the Exeter alum had been traveling the world since graduating from Harvard in 1961.

A stroll along the pier in Montauk fifty years ago was like visiting a big-game fishing museum. Shark fins, heads and extracted jaws were mounted on the pier railings of Montauk harbor; full carcasses hung for days after being caught, the fishermen and townspeople posing beside their prizes. Harpoons, lances and knives of all varieties festooned the wharf; photos lovingly chronicling the exploits of the bounty hunters adorned shops and restaurants.

Montauk was the shark fishing capital of the world, and nobody hauled in more sharks than Frank Mundus. While researching his book — and in TV appearances after “Jaws” was released — Benchley found his way onto the Cricket II, Mundus’s big-game fishing boat. Many assume that Mundus’s cocky swagger and defiance — he hated using the two-way radio — was the source of Benchley’s character, the bounty hunter Quint.

However, Wendy Benchley insists that “Quint was more nuanced…Frank was a very eccentric individual”— a man with a massive ego many said was out of control, on his quest to kill as many sharks as he could to get press attention.

Wendy says her husband based Quint on complex figures with subtler views of sharks, like Rodney Fox, a South African filmmaker and conservationist who was bitten by a great white, survived, and went on to pioneer cage diving.

Benchley’s many TV spots from the ’70s are telling, particularly his cage dives. In one, he’s captured wide-eyed and exhilarated, sitting breathless on the edge of the diving boat, fresh from a close encounter with a great white shark. Gasping with equal parts ecstasy and terror from going face-to-face with the creature in the protective cage beneath the surface, Benchley looks as if he has just seen something miraculous.

One of Benchley's segments on sharks includes a trip down below.

The dreaded “doll’s eyes” that haunt Benchley’s own Ahab-esque character of Quint in “Jaws” had the opposite effect on the author. To him, they were nothing short of transcendent.

The dive was just one of his many firsthand encounters with sharks. Even before “Jaws,” through his work with National Geographic, Benchley made a name for himself in the media as an oceanic expert. Producers of shows like “American Outdoorsman” found his earnest manner, articulate Ivy-league bearing and movie star good looks perfect for the camera. They also loved his penchant for coming face-to-face with sharks, especially enormous ones.

But on a dive during the early 1980s in what seemed an oceanic paradise, “the horrors of the half-known life,” as Melville would have it, came a-haunting. While exploring the deep world of a nature preserve off Costa Rica called Cocos Island, Benchley’s dance with the “momentary spasm of macho shark hunting,” as he later called it, abruptly changed.

Submerged deep beneath the surface, he witnessed a scene that would forever change his life. After hours of diving in what seemed an Eden-esque marine sanctuary, the ocean floor no longer was full of the boyhood wonder of his Nantucket imagination. In a WildAid interview, he testified to seeing “the bodies of corpses of finned sharks littering the bottom of the sea,” calling it "one of the most horrifying sights I have ever seen.” These were no longer savage leviathans and man-eating monsters, but mutilated victims.

A result of a huge global market for shark fin soup — a popular Chinese delicacy — the finning process as captured in the footage accompanying Benchley’s WildAid interview is not for the feint of heart. Fishermen seize the animals by harpoon or large calipers and haul them on deck, where they mercilessly slash side and dorsal fins in a pool of crimson. The animal shows its agony in its contortions, jerking and struggling with each slash of the knife.

Perhaps most brutal is the tossing of the animal back into the sea still very much alive, left to float downward in a painful spasm of slow torturous death.

Peter and Wendy Benchley on an ocean dive.
Peter and Wendy Benchley on an ocean dive.

As Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians.” The Cocos Island dive was Benchley’s glass wall moment.

Wendy Benchley remembers the profound impact the Cocos Island dive had on her husband. “I do remember when he came back,” she recalls. “That is certainly an event he saw firsthand that really shook him. It’s one thing to know the statistics, and another to see it firsthand.”

Carnage — the conquering of the giant 4,550-pound savage predator — drew Benchley to sharks. Now carnage, delivered by bounty hunters and fin commerce, drew him once again.

Benchley’s dives after his dark epiphany at Cocos Island increasingly revealed the dead and dying creatures at the bottom of the sea, their dorsal fins hacked off, blood billowing into the waters like red smoke. The horror of his imagination became all too real, and turned him into a conservation activist.

“The shark in an updated version could not be the villain,” Benchley wrote in “Oceans in Peril,” a piece for the 1995 Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit titled Ocean Planet. He added that if he were to do it all over again, the shark “would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”

“Peter’s rendition of the great white shark as a terrifying monster inadvertently tapped into people’s deepest fears,” Wendy writes on her website. The Cocos Island dive would tap into his own deepest fear that his novel may have contributed to the underwater mutilation he witnessed.

Financing a vigorous shark conservation movement with “Jaws” money, Benchley committed himself to the movement until his death in 2006.

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Details from the filming of “Jaws” point to how Benchley always had a subtler view of sharks than many have supposed, voyages with the macho shark-killer Mundus notwithstanding.

Spielberg, not Benchley, appears to have been the real anti-shark propagandist. “If we don’t succeed in making this picture better than the book, we’re in real trouble,” the director said in a Millimeter film magazine interview July of 1974.

Benchley shot back in the same article: “Spielberg needs to work on character. He knows, flatly, zero.”

Spielberg was a twenty-seven-year-old wunderkind in one of his first major productions. This would be the movie that thrust him to fame.

Spielberg decided to make “Jaws” after pulling a copy of the novel off his producer's desk and finding himself immediately immersed. He connected to its theme of a silent stalking predator, like the one he had just masterfully depicted in his television movie “Duel.” But he had reservations about its adaptability to the screen.

The 1974 Rolling Stone review of the novel “Jaws” by Michael A. Rogers reflects a crucial characteristic of the book commonly forgotten: “None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting.” Rogers confessed that “the shark was easily my favorite character, and one suspects Benchley’s also.”

Benchley’s repertoire drew heavily from literary influences like Melville, while Spielberg was “B-movie literate. When he must make decisions about the small ways people behave, he reaches for movie clichés of the forties and fifties,” Benchley said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times during the summer of filming. The same could be said about his flattening out of Benchley’s shark into a stock villain, which the director neatly folded into the role a B-movie summer monster.

Benchley diving in Bermuda.
Benchley diving in Bermuda.

“Knowing what I know now,” Benchley later confessed, “I could never write that book today,” because “sharks don’t target human beings and they certainly don’t hold grudges,” he told the London Daily Express in 2006.

Louie Psihoyos, director of “The Cove,” the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin slaughter, formerly worked with Benchley at National Geographic and is now wrapping up filming of “6,” about the black market for endangered species, including sharks. The fifty-seven-year-old Psihoyos received the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Media, presented by the Blue Frontier Campaign in July of 2010.

I recently asked Psihoyos if he had any reservations about being a recipient and presenter of the Benchley Awards, given its namesake’s association with “Jaws.” He acknowledged that Benchley’s “public perception as the creator of 'Jaws' is the one that endures. That's why advocating the Benchley Awards is so important; his legacy is much richer and nuanced than that book and the popular film it spawned. The Benchley Awards are the Academy Awards for ocean conservation — they honor the real man and not the fictional universe he created.”

While most viewers remember “Jaws” for its violence, there are also scientists, says Wendy Benchley, who were inspired to pursue research after reading and seeing “Jaws.”

“Peter got hundreds, even thousands of letters from people saying, ‘You made me fascinated with the ocean,’" says Wendy Benchley. This side of “Jaws’” impact has been muted, she says, mainly because “the press has always gone with the ‘oh, ‘Jaws’ was so fearful’ perspective,” even though “it really stimulated an interest in the ocean.”

According to National Geographic, swimmers have a one in 3.7 million chance of being killed by a shark. Australia records the most shark attacks, with a high of 48 in 2008; the Australian government has instituted a culling program in response. But the majority of the sharks they’ve captured are species other than the great whites that made the attacks.

Yet the number of sharks killed to prevent attacks pales in comparison to those slaughtered in the hunt for shark fin soup. “The real culprits,” Psihoyos says, “in extinguishing the oceans of sharks is not 'Jaws' but the trade of their fins for shark fin soup, a tasteless, nutrition-less delicacy that leads to the deaths of some 250,000 sharks a day.”

A great many of those lay at the bottom of the sea off Cocos Island, where the real horror show — the kind one never forgets — unveiled itself to Benchley, a bloody ritual that transformed the “Jaws” author into an advocate.

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David Dowling is the author of five books including Chasing the White Whale: The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today. He is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.

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