June 20, 1975, was just another normal day for great white sharks. In the depths of the ocean, these exquisite creatures swam around just as they had for millions of years. But on that particular day, in our minds at least, everything changed. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had just hit theaters, and in just 78 days, the film overtook The Godfather as the highest-grossing film in North America.
After the release of this film (and its heavy marketing campaign), humanity had a new enemy: the great white shark. Countless viewers were afraid to go into the water for fear of being eaten by one of these sea monsters. But knowing what he knows now, author Peter Benchley says that he never would have written Jaws.
For the past decade, in 2020, especially, the number of great whites swimming off the coast of California has been significantly rising. Yet, no one seems all too concerned. It’s a stark contrast to our attitudes towards sharks back in the ‘70s. During the pinnacle of Jaws’ popularity, the film spawned an international panic about sharks.
Any news about the increasing fatality rate from unprovoked shark attacks sparked an uproar, completely clearing every single beach of swimmers. Today, the beaches are packed. Why is that? What has changed during these past few decades? With more people now aware of how rare shark attacks really are, it seems that the backlash against shark-phobia has gained momentum—and rightfully so.
Between 2003 and 2008, there were only four fatal shark attacks, according to the International Shark Attack File. You want to know which animal killed more people that year? Cows. Within that same five-year span, there were 108 cattle-related fatalities. It’s strange to think that cows are more likely to kill humans than sharks.
Researchers also found that while shark attacks are on the rise, so is the number of people who spend time in the ocean. But before Western culture came to such awareness, our only interaction with sharks came from Jaws, the product of Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg’s appetite for bloody terror at sea. However, it seems that Benchley’s conscience caught up with him in his later years.
The author, who reinvented the great white shark as mankind’s archenemy, completely changed his stance on sharks. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Benchley could not escape the effects of his creation, and, for most of his career, the author committed himself to an all-out assault on the unjustified killing of sharks.
“I remember thinking this as I was writing it ‘The shark was like a maniac. It was an unstoppable, uncontrollable force,’” Benchley said in his Vimeo video, Shark Trouble. “When I was a child, that was always the scariest thing, the maniac. The guy with the ax that you couldn’t stop.” Without realizing it, the author tapped into a nerve.
It was a scary realization for everyone. “The very primal fear of being eaten in the ocean in an environment that we choose to go, there is an actual, genuine danger that something could eat you, and what a horrible way to go,” Benchley noted. This fear was the motivation behind the unprecedented and uncontrolled killing of sharks in the years after Jaws’ release.
During the first 25 years, some shark species were reduced by a whopping 90 percent, according to Benchley. That’s when the author decided to take a stand. “We must not allow just one generation of humanity to needlessly eradicate 400 million years of evolution,” he told The Guardian in 2000.
According to his widow, who has also launched a career in environmental policy and politics, Benchley’s connection to the ocean began when he was just a young child. But it wasn’t until 1964 when the news of a massive 4,550-pound great white shark was caught off the coast of Montauk
on Long Island in New York, that Benchley became fixated on using sharks as the villain in his books. At the time, Benchley had just returned from a post-college graduation trip around the world. This was just the inspiration the Harvard alum needed for his next book.
Taking a stroll along the pier in Montauk, New York, was once a completely different scene. Fifty years ago, the pier looked like a big-game fishing museum. There were shark fins, jaws, and even heads mounted on the pier railings of the harbor.
Full shark carcasses hung for days after being caught, and fishermen posed next to their prizes. Harpoons and knives of all varieties were on display, and photos of shark bounty hunters and their targets adorned local restaurants and shops. You could say that Montauk was the shark fishing capital of the world.
No one brought in more sharks than Frank Mundus. While researching his book, Benchley found his way onto Mundus’ big-game fishing boat, Cricket II.
Many people believe that the fisherman’s cocky attitude and defiance, including his hatred for using a two-way radio, was the inspiration behind Benchley’s bounty hunter character, Quint. However, Wendy Benchley believes that there is a very distinct difference between the two. “Quint was more nuanced while Frank was a very eccentric individual,” she told reporters. Yes, Mundus was known for many things—most of them negative.
Mundus first moved to Montauk in 1951 to start charters for bluefish fishing. But after a few trips to the sea, Mundus realized that bluefish weren’t plentiful in the waters surrounding Montauk—but sharks were.
So, he decided to start what he called “Monster Fishing,” the harpooning of sharks for fun (which is now illegal). Anyone who knew Mundus says that his ego was out of control. He would go on a shark killing rampage with the goal of getting as much attention as he could from the press. Sadly, it worked.
It was Mundus who harpooned that 4,550-pound shark that caught Benchley’s attention in 1964. However, this enormous catch may not have been as big as Mundus made it out to be. The shark was never weighed, and 4,550 pounds was just an estimate used to bolster Mundus’ reputation.
His public image was also enhanced by his eccentric personality and his pretentious display of sharks. The bounty hunter painted his big toenails green and red for starboard and port and wore a single hoop earring, an Australian slouch hat, and a shark tooth necklace.
It’s easy to see why Benchley was drawn to Mundus. He was a colorful, interesting character who was hell-bent on killing sharks for publicity. Although Mundus was never credited for being the inspiration behind Quint, the fisherman says that he was.
“[Quint] knew how to handle the people the same way I did,” Mundus wrote on his website. “He also used similar shark fishing techniques based on my methods.” However, Wendy disagrees with Mundus. She says that her late husband based the character on someone more levelheaded.
Benchley’s widow believes that Quint was based on a “complex figure” with a more subtle view of sharks, like Rodney Fox, a South African filmmaker who pioneered cage diving after surviving a great white shark attack.
The shark bite was so bad that Fox is regarded as a miracle survivor of the world’s worst non-fatal shark attack in history. But instead of calling for the harpooning of sharks, Fox became a leading expert on great whites, as well as an avid conservationist. However, Benchley never went on expeditions with Fox and was spotted on several occasions with Mundus.
After the film hit theaters in ’75, Benchley made his rounds on several TV interviews and documentaries. Many of his appearances are telling, particularly his cage dives. In one segment, viewers can see the author sitting wide-eyed and breathless on the edge of a diving boat.
He was fresh from a close encounter with a great white. “When I wrote a novel called Jaws, I was faced with a fascinating challenge: How to describe the instincts of a beast so perfect that it never needed to evolve,” he said in 1975.
“Well, to write about sharks is one thing, but to venture into their world is something else.” Gasping with equal parts of excitement and terror from swimming face-to-face with this monstrous creature, he looks as if he had just seen something extraordinary.
Coincidently enough, the “doll eyes” that haunt Benchley’s Quint had the complete opposite effect on the author. To Benchley, great white sharks were nothing short of magnificent. He had several encounters with sharks over the years. In fact, his second novel, The Deep, emerged from meeting diver Teddy Tucker in Bermuda.
But it wasn’t until a dive in the early ’80s that Benchley completely changed his stance on shark diving. While exploring the waters of the Cocos Islands, a nature preserve off the coast of Costa Rica, he had a glimpse of the effects of “macho shark hunting,” as he called it.
After hours of diving in what seemed like the Garden of Eden for a marine biologist, he witnessed a scene that forever changed his life. Deep beneath the surface, the ocean floor no longer looked like what he imagined it looked like.
In a WildAid interview, Benchley says that he saw “the bodies of corpses of finned sharks littering the bottom of the sea,” calling the scene “one of the most horrifying sights I have ever seen.” He immediately realized that these were no longer savage, man-eating monsters. What he saw before him were mutilated victims.
What made the whole situation worse was that Benchley’s book was partially to blame for their deaths. He felt horrible. As a result of the global market for shark fin soup, a popular Chinese delicacy, the finning process was captured for his WildAid interview. Let me just tell you, it is not for the fainthearted.
Fishermen seize the sharks by either harpoons or large calipers before hauling them on deck. The fishermen then mercilessly cut off their side and dorsal fins before throwing them back into the sea, very much alive.
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey calls the process “the worst act of animal cruelty I’ve ever seen.” Like Paul McCartney once said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians.” Well, this Cocos Island dive was Benchley’s glass wall moment. He came back to the surface a completely changed man, knowing that he had to save these beautiful creatures.
Wendy remembers the impact that his Cocos Island dive had on her late husband. “I do remember when he came back,” she told reporters. “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.” Just as the conquering of a 4,550-pound predator originally drew Benchley to sharks, the carnage delivered by the fin commerce drew him in again. In the dives following his dark epiphany off Cocos Island, Benchley saw the same scene over and over again.
He continued to see dying creatures lying at the bottom of the sea, and the horrors of his imagination became all too real. That’s when he decided to be a conservation activist. “The shark in an updated version could not be the villain,” Benchley wrote in Oceans in Peril,
a short piece for the 1995 Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit called Ocean Planet. He also added that if he were to do it all over again, the great white “would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”
Benchley was so overcome with grief and guilt that he decided to finance a vigorous shark conservation movement with the money he had earned from writing Jaws. The author committed himself to the movement up until his death in 2006.
But as behind the scenes, details from the film have come to light, it seems that Benchley always had more subtler views of sharks than many people have assumed, in spite of his voyages with macho bounty hunter Mundus. It seems that Spielberg, not Benchley, was the real anti-shark propagandist.
In a 1974 Millimeter Film magazine interview, Spielberg furthers this point. “If we don’t succeed in making this picture better than the book, we’re in real trouble,” he said. But Benchley shot back. In the same article, he said, “Spielberg needs to work on character. He knows, flatly, zero.”
At the time of the film, Spielberg was a 27-year-old film director on the set of one of his first major productions. Jaws was the movie that launched him into the limelight. The director decided to make the film after seeing the novel on his producer’s desk.
Finding himself completely immersed in the story, Spielberg says that he couldn’t put the book down. The director connected to the theme of a silent stalking predator that lurked below the ocean’s surface.
In many ways, it reminded him of the predator he depicted in his television movie Duel. While Spielberg loved the book, he had his reservations about the story’s ability to be adapted to the big screen. To be honest, he was right. “None of the humans are particularly likable or interesting,” Rolling Stone magazine said in 1974.
“The shark was easily my favorite character, and one suspects Benchley’s also,” the review continued. The author drew heavily from American Renaissance novelists like Herman Melville, and he considered Spielberg to be a “B-movie literate.”
“When he must make decisions about the small ways people behave, he reaches for movie clichés of the forties and fifties,” the author told reporters from the Los Angeles Times during the summer of filming Jaws. It seems that Spielberg and Benchley had a difference in creative direction. The finger-pointing continued long after the Jaws wrapped up filming.
“Knowing what I know now,” Benchley later confessed to the London Daily Express, “I could never write that book today,” because “sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges.”
Louie Psihoyos, who directed the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, formally worked with Benchley at National Geographic. He also earned the Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Excellence in Media in July 2010. When asked if he has any reservations about receiving an award in Benchley’s name due to the author’s work on Jaws, Psihoyos has an interesting answer.
The director understands that Benchley’s “public perception as the creator of Jaws is the one that endures. But on the same note, that’s why it’s important to advocate the Benchley Award. His legacy is much richer and more nuanced than that book and the popular film it spawned,” he told reporters.
“The Benchley Awards are the Academy Awards for ocean conservation — they honor the real man and not the fictional universe he created.” And for his efforts, Benchley deserves to be acknowledged. Not to mention that the book also had a positive effect on young minds.
While most people remember Jaws for the violence, there are also people who were inspired to pursue a career in marine biology and research. “Peter got hundreds, even thousands of letters from people saying, ‘You made me fascinated with the ocean,’” Wendy Benchley told reporters.
However, she believes that the book and film’s positive impact is never talked about as “the press has always gone with the ‘oh, ‘Jaws’ was so fearful’ perspective,” she continues, even though swimmers have a one in 3.7 million chance of being killed by a shark, according to National Geographic.
The United States and Australia take the lead as the countries for the most unprovoked shark attacks in the world. In response, the Australian government launched a culling program. From 1962 to 2018, over 50,000 sharks were killed by Australian authorities.
Sadly, this number is small compared to the 50 million sharks caught each year by the commercial fishing industry. “The real culprits,” Psihoyos tells reporters, “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.”
Luckily, Benchley wasn’t the only person fighting for the conservation of sharks. Nearly 60 years after his near-fatal great white shark attack, Rodney Fox is still enchanted by the animals. Today, Fox still bears the scars of that fateful day that changed his life forever.
In hindsight, Fox admits that he put himself in a position to be attacked. On December 8, 1963, Fox was one of 40 competitive spearfishermen that spent four hours competing in the ocean off Aldinga Beach in Australia. With the tides coming in, the blood from freshly speared fish created a long crimson trail in the water.
That’s when Fox made a decision that would alter the course of his life. As a champion spearfisherman, Fox needed just one dusky morwong fish to secure him first place. “I decided to swim way offshore, away from the reef to some rocks out in the weed
in about 60 feet of water,” Rodney told interviewers from ABC in 2009. Finally, Fox found his fish. Focused on his target, ready to spear, Fox was suddenly taken by a great white shark. “I thought I’d been hit by a train.”
Just a few weeks earlier, Fox coincidently had a conversation with a friend about escaping shark bites. So, he reached around the shark’s head and tried gouging out its eyes. “The shark seemed to let me go, and I fell out of its mouth and then I quickly thrust my arm out to try and push it away,” Fox continued.
“but my hand disappeared right over its teeth, into its mouth.” The spearfisherman quickly pulled his hand out of the shark’s mouth but accidentally grazed its teeth, resulting in 90 stitches to repair the damage.
Then Fox grabbed the shark from behind and held on tight, thinking that it can’t turn around and bite him. Everything happened so fast that Fox forgot that he was still 60 feet underwater. Running out of breath fast, he let go of the shark’s back and began swimming to the surface.
“I went to the surface, took a couple of breaths of air, and looked down and as best as I could through the blood-red water,” Fox recalled. “I saw this great big shark coming up with its mouth wide open.”
In what Fox says was his first miracle, the shark suddenly changed course and swallowed the bobber that was attached to a line on his dive belt. But as the shark dove deeper into the water, Fox was pulled back underwater.
Just as Fox thought that he would drown, the second miracle happened: The line snapped. “When the shark had bitten me on the chest, it had actually bitten through three-quarters of the way through the line.” With a big pool of blood in the water, a nearby boat came over to see what was going on and was almost on top of Fox when he surfaced.
Panicked, they immediately pulled Fox into the boat and rushed him off to the hospital. Fox needed 360 stitches to repair his abdomen, broken ribs, punctured lung, spleen, diaphragm, and the cuts on his hand.
Although decades have passed since the attack, Fox says that memories from that day are still fresh in his mind and that he relives the attack every time he retells what happened to him. “I managed after a few months to suppress any nightmares that I might have had,” the spearfisherman says. The attack has also left him with many questions.
“I was left on earth to do something, and it has taken like 50 years to look back and find out what it might be.” Despite the stitches and the nightmares, Fox does not feel any hatred towards sharks.
He knows that 40 divers spearing fish for over four hours would have left quite a trail back to the sharks swimming in the nearby reef. Thinking that there was something wonderful to eat, the shark just happened to come across Fox first. Following the attack, Fox began working on overcoming his fear of the water.
To overcome this fear, Fox began researching great whites and quickly became fascinated with them. As his knowledge and love for sharks grew, he began hosting shark diving trips for cinematographers. When Jaws was released in 1975, Fox notes that it was a turning point. The book hit this psychological nerve in humanity.
“They found out that people had this incredible fear of being eaten alive,” Fox said in 2009. The shark conservationist believes that this fear comes from feeling out of our element in water. “The great white, or the large sharks, are probably the last major predator that man hasn’t got under control,” he says.
Fox also agrees with The Cove director, Louie Psihoyos, in that the real culprits behind the declining shark numbers is the love for shark fin soup. “The numbers of the sharks that they are catching is like 100 million sharks per year,” Fox notes.
Through his foundation, the Fox Shark Research Foundation, the conservationist and his son Andrew have been able to create projects that ensure the tracking, research, and conservation of these creatures. Fox is also involved in another project, a “shark experience” tour that takes people out to the waters surrounding the Neptune Islands in southern Australia.
Fox attracts sharks to the boat with tuna and lowers people, protected by a shark cage, into the water. While this is a great business for thrill-seekers, many people believe that these expeditions familiarize sharks with humans, causing more attacks. However, Fox disagrees.
“Quite often, we’ll see sharks swimming around the sea lions, and they are not interested in us at all,” he tells reporters from ABC. He adds that the sharks come and go at their own free will, regardless if they smell tuna or not. Fox also says that seeing these animals up close truly is a sight to behold.
When speaking about great whites swimming in the water, Fox is quite poetic. “In our cages down there, I’ve just sat watching these beautiful sharks as they glide and fly around, they actually fly almost like a big jumbo jet,” he fondly recalls.
“To see things of beauty like that really makes you appreciate that they’re a wonderful animal that is out there.” Unlike what may be portrayed in films or even documentaries, Fox says that these creatures are quite peaceful. They generally don’t attack the cages, meaning that they aren’t these man-eaters that a lot of people think they are.