Still afraid to get back in the water?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am

When Jaws author Peter Benchley visited Hong Kong a few years ago he was rushed for time and quickly ordered the set menu at one of the city's swanker hotel restaurants.

It wasn't until the first course arrived that he realised what he had done. Out came the soup - shark's fin soup to be precise - and he looked up from his plate in silence.

In retrospect, the incident provided an ironic reflection on the life of the man who passed away last Saturday at age 65 after a long fight with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Benchley didn't really know what was in store when he released Jaws in 1974. It was a page-turner but definitely no classic. What hit a nerve with the public was its subject matter - a huge shark wreaks havoc on a small Long Island town one summer, its presence tearing at the fabric of the local society as surely as the beast's jaws tore through its victims' quivering flesh.

The book sold 20 million copies worldwide, but would now be gathering dusty in airport bookshops if not for the fact that it captured the attention of a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg.

A fresh face on the Hollywood scene at the time - he had only previous directed the TV hit Duel (1971) and 1974's The Sugarland Express - Spielberg was looking to make it big. And they didn't come much bigger than his film version of Jaws. The film signalled the era of the Hollywood blockbuster - opening on June 20, 1975, it became the first movie to drag in more than US$100 million from the US box office.

And the film industry was never quite the same. Spielberg - and later the likes of Francis Ford Coppola - took control, budgets blew out of all proportions. And, importantly, filmmakers learned what a bit of canny marketing - and the right product - could do to a worldwide audience.

The fear Jaws spread around the globe was palpable. That summer, just a gentle humming of the film's chilling soundtrack would send swimmers scurrying frantically back to the safety of the sand.

For the sharks, it was bad news. Any chance they had of getting some sympathy - even though their numbers were dwindling fast - sank like a weighted corpse.

For Benchley, always a tireless conservationist, the book's success brought with it the knowledge that, unknowingly as at that lunch years later, he had played a hand against the very thing he would spend a lifetime trying to protect.

In the years following Jaws' release, the quietly determined Benchley travelled the world virtually non-stop trying to educate people about the wonders of the deep. 'Fear used to be the cause,' said Benchley. 'The public perception now has changed a lot. Even when Jaws was at its height, no one was advocating wiping out sharks. There was a little bit of macho nonsense in Australia and the US when people would go out and try to kill them but it didn't last long. All that behaviour we used to think of as aggression we now know as curiosity.'

Benchley was born in New York City and graduated from Harvard with a major in English in 1961. His literary career seemed set by his breeding - he was the son of the American writer Nathaniel Benchley and his grandfather was a noted humorist and member of the famed Algonquin Club, Robert Benchley.

His life-long love of the ocean began as a child when he would spend his summers in the water off Nantucket Island.

Benchley went on to serve in the US Marine Corps Reserves before signing on as a reporter with The Washington Post in 1963. He was an associate editor at Newsweek from 1964 to 1967, and then joined the staff of US President Lyndon Johnson as a speechwriter. From 1969 to 1973 he was a freelance writer and he became a full-time novelist in 1974 with the publication of Jaws.

He also produced such successful novels as The Deep and more recently the TV series Peter Benchley's Amazon. But it is for Jaws that he will always be remembered.

'I was absolutely shocked by its success,' he said. 'It was a first novel, and first novels don't sell. And it was a first novel about fish, so please! I knew they couldn't make a movie out of it because they couldn't build a shark and you couldn't catch and train a great white. I think the advance I received on the book was a proper reflection of what the book was deemed to be worth and that was US$7,500.

'That's why it was such a shock to everybody. The film was released in, I think, 617 theatres [in the US] and people were amazed. They said it was crazy and would never work. Well, now you have films opening in 2,000 theatres.

'In the years since Jaws was released, humans have learned so much. What we've learned is good, but what's done with it is bad.'

Despite the fans who return to the film time and time again, Benchley's work with groups like the California-based conservation agency WildAid will perhaps be his most lasting legacy. His work - through lectures, book tours and documentaries - helped the world slowly realise the staggering case of the shark.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates 100 million sharks and shark-like fish are caught each year and this has resulted in a decline of as much as 80 per cent in some species.

But Benchley was a man smart enough to know the realities of life. Over that lunch - he ended up settling for the bass - he recalled a recent meeting with a fisherman.

'We asked would he be interested if, instead of killing a whale shark, he could get paid for showing people where the whale sharks were. And he said 'For sure, it would be easier for me'.

'For fishermen, you have to give them an alternative so they can still feed their families. They don't want some wild-eyed American telling them not to kill the fish because they still have to find a way to feed their families.'

On his death, his widow Mary told reporters: 'He cared very much about sharks. He spent most of his life trying to explain to people that if you are in the ocean, you're in the shark's territory, so it behooves you to take precautions.

'Peter kept telling people the book was fiction, it was a novel, and that he no more took responsibility for the fear of sharks than Mario Puzo took responsibility for the Mafia.'