Jaws Author Peter Benchley Talks Sharks

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 7 2002

Sharks Photo Essay: Go >>

Peter Benchley has spent a lifetime diving with, studying, and writing about sharks. Since he penned Jaws in 1974, Benchley has discovered that these predators are quite different from his fictional monster that made people wonder whether it was safe to go into the water.

Benchley writes in his new book, Shark Trouble: "We knew so little back then, and have learned so much since, that I couldn't possibly write the same story today. I know now that the mythic monster I created was largely a fiction. I also know now, however, that the genuine animal is just as—if not even more—fascinating."

Here, Benchley shares some insights on one of nature's most fascinating predators with National Geographic News.

NG: What was it about sharks that drew you to them, that inspired you to spend so much of your life studying and writing about them?

PB: I believe implicitly that every young man in the world is fascinated with either sharks or dinosaurs. I grew up spending my summers on Nantucket, fishing and swimming, so whereas some kids were into dinosaurs, I was naturally into sharks. I've been lucky enough to follow that obsession into adulthood.

You've dived often with sharks, including great whites. What is it like to get such a dramatic reminder of our relative place in the food chain?

I'm going down to South Africa in about two weeks to dive with great whites again, and every time you get into the water with a great white you feel completely insignificant. Not only from the fear but also from the sense of how absolutely perfect that animal is in its environment, and how out of place you are. We have a terrible feeling of superiority and don't really respect the fact that the world's greatest wilderness is at our back door. So when you see a 2,000- or 3,000-pound animal swimming up and considering whether or not you're edible, it's quite a humbling experience.

There is so much misinformation and fear about sharks in our society. What are some of the most common and off-base misperceptions?

The most common and off-base misperception is the theory that sharks target humans, that they are man-eaters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every time you see on TV people surrounded by sharks, the chances are 99 percent that [the sharks] have been baited, and it gives a false impression because by nature sharks will stay away from people.

Shark-diving operations, in which tourists hope to encounter sharks, have been a matter of some debate. Some people feel it conditions sharks to regard humans as a food source. How do you feel about such operations?

Continued on Next Page >>


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