Great white shark, the fragile giant
Geoff Metcalf interviews 'Jaws' author, marine expert, Peter Benchley

By Geoff Metcalf
In 1975, a young Peter Benchley wrote a book that was later turned into the classic movie, "Jaws." The book sold over 10 million copies. Between the book and the movie, untold numbers of would-be ocean swimmers were scared out of the water.

Benchley now says he could not write the same book today, claiming that sharks are misunderstood and unnecessarily reviled. WorldNetDaily reporter Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Peter Benchley in the wake of a National Geographic special chronicling his investigation into great white sharks.

Question: Peter, you have probably scared more people out of the water than anyone or anything. Long after "Jaws," you had an epiphany of sorts and are now softening your vilification of great white sharks. What happened?

Answer: I wouldn't describe it as an epiphany so much as an evolutionary change.

Q: You have mentioned that there is a lot more known about sharks now than when you wrote "Jaws" in 1974.

A: Yes, absolutely. It's been 25 years of learning, of trying to figure out what these behaviors that seemed so hostile and bestial back then were really all about. Over the course of 25 years, the scientific community has learned an enormous amount about these animals. So, it would make it very hard to do something like "Jaws" which, in a sense, makes the animal a bad guy.

Q: Was your interest in sharks originally sparked by the need for a bogeyman for the book and then, after the fact, you found out more about great whites?

A: Yes. I grew up studying the body of knowledge -- such as it was -- about sharks. I had a wonderful childhood with a great interest in both sharks and dinosaurs. Sharks happened to be convenient for me since I lived on Nantucket Island off of Massachusetts. I was fascinated by them. By the time "Jaws" was published in 1974, I knew as much as almost anybody.

Q: Which, frankly, wasn't a lot, right?

A: That's correct. The only people who had any contact with great white sharks were the people who made a brilliant documentary called "Blue Water, White Death," which is still the seminal shark documentary. The creature fascinated me and I read a little newspaper article about some guy catching a two-ton great white off the beaches of Long Island and thought, "What would happen if one of these things came in and wouldn't go away?"

Q: When I watched the National Geographic special and saw the video of the great white that came up to the back of the boat in Africa, it was an amazing visual moment. Please explain what happened.

A: We have to go back a little bit in time. It started about a year and a half ago, when a guy who worked with white sharks a lot off of South Africa found that the sharks were coming in and biting his outboard motor. They were losing their teeth -- not that they can't replace their teeth -- but he found it to be a shame that these animals were coming in and damaging themselves.

One of the things we have learned over the last 25 years is that, when it looks as if they are attacking a motor or the bottom of a boat, what they are really doing is testing what they perceive as a difference in the electromagnetic fields in the water. Metal in the water changes the magnetic areas and so do boats. So, they test and determine edibility by biting it.

One day, this shark kept coming in and damaging his mouth and this guy took the risk and put his hand in the water and tried to nudge the animal away from the motor.

Q: How big was this shark?

A: It was 14 feet long and probably weighed about 3,000 pounds.

Q: What did the shark do?

A: Instead of turning away or snapping at him, the shark rose up as if in command under the man's hand and sort of hung suspended with its entire head out of the water. Its mouth was agape and its jaw was rolled forward in bite position. And, yet, there was not a moment of violence or threat about it. The shark hung there for what seemed like a week but it was about five or ten seconds. Then, the man took his hand away and the shark swooned -- a word I finally settled on for the National Geographic story because it looked like that. It fell backward into the water and drifted aimlessly down on its back, showing its white belly. It then rolled over very calmly and swam around the boat on its back two or three times, gnashing its teeth.

Q: What was that all about?

A: I've had no explanation for this. What it looked like was a version of what scientists call "tonic immobility." It's like scratching a dog's belly; they go into a kind of trance.

I wouldn't have believed this story until I saw it. And, if you saw the film, you see my son and me looking over the back of the boat, not believing what we are seeing. David Doubillet, the great photographer, was effectively able to stick his camera inside the mouth of the animal and take pictures. The picture on the cover of the April National Geographic is brilliant enough but the pictures he was able to take from the proximity no one had ever imagined before -- that itself was an epiphany.

This is the largest carnivorous fish in the world and it does all the things I portrayed in the book. It just doesn't do them all at once and the reasons behind its behavior are completely different from what anybody knew. Sharks have no interest in hurting you; they just want to eat you.

Q: One of the things you mention has been learned about great white sharks is that if you let them know, that you know, they know you are there, they won't attack you. Is that right?

A: That's one way to try to give yourself the best chance you can. It is the conclusion of Rodney Fox, a fellow who had been bitten very badly himself. He says that they are ambushers by nature. They want to take their prey in the easiest possible way -- as all animals do. If the shark knows that you know it is there, it suddenly makes you a harder prey and the chances are better it will leave you alone.

Q: We also hear that if one attacks a human, it will usually spit the person out, right?

A: Usually that's the case. The first time we got on the boat in South Africa, there were a lot of us on very small boats. And the fellow running the operation said, "Here's the rule on these boats. If anybody falls overboard and the shark takes him, the nearest person jump on the shark's head and it will let them go."

My son and I stood and looked at each other and figured we were two on the boats who would actually even consider it. It would not exactly be done automatically.

Q: Here on the west coast, we hear a lot of stories of guys on surfboards who create a silhouette similar to a seal. A shark will come out, take a whack at him and then, when it realizes it's not what it thought, will generally go away.

A: Generally, there has been a lot of that here in California. Then, once in a while, a shark will bite somebody and the person will bleed to death.

Q: After "Jaws," sharks were designated as the bogeyman du jour. There was a lot of subsequent over-fishing of sharks, right?

A: No. It didn't happen because of "Jaws." It was brought to attention because of the movie. There was a spasm of macho lunacy that happened after "Jaws." Some guys went around saying, let's go prove ourselves and shoot great white sharks. There were people who did monster fishing. They always existed and they suddenly found that white sharks were popular and they could raise their prices.

That trend was nothing compared to modern technology's impact on ruining the shark's population. These 80-mile-long lines with thousands of hooks, these gigantic nets, improved location technology -- all have contributed to devastating the populations of not only sharks but of a lot of animals in the ocean. So it is true the shark became the devil du jour, as you say, but the actual long-term result of that has been more interest than hostility. I certainly didn't create the fear of sharks. It's been there since man first put his foot in the water.

Q: But you kind of poured some gasoline on the fire.

A: I don't know. I just sort of expressed it. Nobody really knew anything about sharks at the time.

Q: How fragile is the habitat and what is the shark fishery like right now?

A: Worldwide, it is devastating. They say that some species of sharks have been destroyed by about 90 percent. (I keep saying "they" and "some" because nobody knows for sure.) There is a lot of fear that some species of sharks may never be able to recover. Great whites are in trouble -- but nobody knows exactly how much trouble because no one has ever been able to take a census of them in any particular area.

Q: They still don't even know where they breed, right?

A: No. Nor is there any guaranteed answer to how big they can get, how long they can live and how many young they can bear. What we discovered during the year we took to research this article was that these animals, for all their size, strength and perceived ferocity -- which is certainly true -- are very fragile animals.

The animal that is in the piece is a 17-and-a-half feet long, 3,000-pound female that was eating snappers off a long line and got herself a wrapped up in it and drowned. Now here is an animal that should be able to bust lines if you believe the movie "Jaws." It should be able to tear down docks and do all sorts of damage. But, in fact, this animal is very, very easy to kill.

When people do catch and release, big sharks often die of shock when they are brought up to the boat. Here is an animal that has no experience with not only fear but any resistance with anything in the ocean. A shark with no reason to be worried suddenly finds itself fighting for its life. It will overheat and die of shock by the time it is brought to the boat.

Q: Is there any way through conservation for the shark fishery to be managed?

A: There isn't a great big fishery for sharks, for great whites certainly. They are protected in the United States, in South Africa, in South Australia and many other places around the world. They are not a practical fish to catch. They are very large. They are difficult to deal with in terms of getting them into the boat.

The specific targeting of fishery of great whites is not significant but the accidental catch of them certainly is. That's what's doing the damage. Nature makes so few of these apex predators because nature knows that the ocean society can't sustain too many of them. But, when they start running into human beings or human-engineered machinery like lobster pots or long lines and you lose a pregnant or breeding-age female, you lose an awful lot of the population.

Q: Beyond the one year you spent researching this piece for National Geographic, who else is involved in trying to determine how they breed, how many there are, how long they live?

A: In the Bay Area, you have a celebrated shark scientist named Peter Clemley who works south of San Francisco. There is a lot of white-shark activity between San Francisco and the Faerllon Islands.

Q: When are they going to air this TV special again?

A: I don't know. It's a National Geographic Explorer show and I hope they repeat it. They have already repeated it two or three times. I certainly wish they would show it more often.