By James Bernstein
With all the media hype about sharks these days, our thoughts went to the late Peter Benchley, who wrote many books during his life, but who will be best remembered for his best-seller, “Jaws,” about a series of shark attacks in the small beach town of Amity, whose residents became terrified of the big fish. The film also frightened audiences around the world, becoming the blockbuster summer movie of 1975.
Benchley, who had quit his job as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson when he was in his late 20s, became a millionaire after “Jaws” was published and became a movie starring Roy Scheider as Sheriff Martin Brody, a good guy who wants to warn the town about the roving shark, and Murray Hamilton as Mayor Larry Vaughn, who worries more about losing tourist revenue than about sharks.
Movie theaters were packed and sharks were the talk of that long-ago summer. Benchley became something of a folk hero. The book sold more than 10 million copies.
What did Benchley think? He regretted writing the book.
In 2000, in an interview with the Animal Attack Files, Benchley said, “What I now know, which wasn’t known when I wrote ‘Jaws,’ is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh.”
“No one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction,” he added.
Benchley’s shark-hunter character, Quint, is thought to have been based on the career of Frank Mundus, a Montauk-based charter captain who killed whales merely for chum and harpooned sharks, a practice that is outlawed today. In the last few years of his life, Mundus became a shark conservationist.
So did Benchley, who spent his later years trying to persuade people that sharks weren’t necessarily out to get them, that they had a purpose in nature, and that, most of all, shark attacks were extremely rare, despite all the television broadcasts about them, which often borrowed the theme from “Jaws.”
In another interview, Benchley said, “For all their power, they are amazingly fragile. Sharks are no longer the villains. They are the victims.”
According to Ocearch, a nonprofit that is dedicated to researching great white sharks and other large sea predators, the odds of dying in a shark attack are 1 in 3.7 million. Hundreds of sharks are killed each year, according to the organization.
Christopher Paparo, manager of the school of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the State University at Stony Brook, noted that there are more than 1,000 fatal car accidents in New York state per year. There is a better chance of being injured in an auto accident, Paparo said, than of even seeing a shark.
Still, all the experts warn that sharks are not to be taken lightly. Beachgoers are warned to swim only in waters where there is a lifeguard, to always swim with others, to avoid wearing shiny objects in the water that may attract sharks and, if they see bunker, which sharks eat, to stay out of the water until the bunker pass.
“I wouldn’t like to be bit by a shark,” Paparo said.
There have been reports of several shark bites and sightings off Nassau County’s South Shore.
The television and radio reports tend toward the dramatic.
In a paper in 2020 by Janey Sellars, a marine biology graduate from Exeter University, the media take a big hit for their coverage of sharks. “With recent technological advances,” Sellars wrote, “the media is now able to reach more people and influence the relationship (between human and sharks) by framing stories and twisting the truth to give sharks a bad name.”
“Once regarded as a valuable and elusive creature, they are now perceived as ocean monsters,” Sellars added. “It is an issue that has only increased with time and is likely to continue as human and shark populations continue to overlap.”
Benchley, who was the first-ever host of “Shark Week,” Discovery Channel’s celebration of the big fish, may have put it best:
“The shark in an updated ‘Jaws’ could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments? JBernstein@liherald.com.