Benchley tells stories of 'Jaws,' her efforts to protect sharks and the world's oceans

Stonington — Wendy Benchley, the wife of late “Jaws” author Peter Benchley, entertained a group of 75 people at the LaGrua Center on Wednesday with stories and photos from the filming of the movie and described her 40-year-long effort to protect sharks and the world’s oceans.

While some may think Peter Benchley was no fan of sharks, as his 1975 blockbuster movie depicting a massive shark terrorizing a beach community scared millions of moviegoers, the exact opposite was true.

Peter Benchley, who died in 2006, and Wendy have worked tirelessly to protect the species.

“'Jaws' changed our lives forever. It opened up a world for us,” she said, describing their worldwide travels to dive with marine life. “We also saw the terrible destruction humans had caused.”

She pointed out that her husband completed the final edit of “Jaws" on Elihu Island. She showed photos of Benchley, director Steven Spielberg and the actors on the Martha’s Vineyard set, as well as a promotional video her late husband made for the movie but which was never released.

Showing a photo of the mechanical shark, nicknamed Bruce by the crew, she said they had a terrible time with it because it was always breaking down.

In order to capture real footage of a great white shark swimming, the producers had to find a way for the real 15-foot shark to resemble the 25-foot-long Bruce. Benchley said two Australian divers and shark experts came up with a plan to place a very small man in a cage to make the real shark look as big as Bruce. She said that just as filming was to begin, a great white shark tore the protective cage from the boat, sending the cage to the bottom. The small man disappeared below deck and was found curled up with a bottle of vodka and refused to go in the water.

Benchley described her experiences swimming with sharks, stroking them as they swam past, and being amazed at how great whites glide through the water. She also showed photos of her favorite sharks, such as the aggressive ocean white tip shark with fins that resemble a fighter jet, and the whale shark, “a true gentle giant of the ocean.”

She said there have been great changes in the attitudes toward sharks over the past 40 years, as more has become known about them. She described one diver in the Bahamas who is known for his Youtube videos that show him lying on the ocean bottom while a tiger shark named Emma nuzzles him.

“We know sharks are not man eaters. They don’t eat people. We’re too bony and we don’t taste good. While a test bite can be serious, they generally test bite, spit you out and go on,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Benchley said people and the media realize that sharks are not the vicious creatures portrayed in "Jaws."

“I think we’ve come a long way, baby,” she said.

Benchley, who has been a longtime seasonal resident of Elihu Island, said that after her husband died, she put all her energy into ocean conservation and trying to save sharks.

She has founded the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, which for the past 10 years has honored policymakers, explorers, scientists, journalists and others. One of the 2017 awards went to Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s minister of marine affairs and fisheries, who implemented a policy of prosecuting the captains of illegal fishing vessels and then dynamiting their boats. So far 380 have been sunk.

Benchley is a board member of World Aid, which works to reduce the demand for wildlife products such as shark fins for soup and rhino horn. She said there has been a 50 to 60 percent decrease over the past several years in the use of shark fins for soup in China and other Asian countries after public service announcements featuring celebrities such as former NBA star Yao Ming and actor Jackie Chan refusing to eat shark fin soup. Benchley showed two of the commercials.

She described the “barbaric” practice of slicing off the fins and then throwing the shark back in the water to suffer a slow, suffocating death.

Benchley also praised the efforts of the local organization Clean up Sound and Harbors for its work to improve water quality.

She pointed out that actions are being taken around the world, with the creation of marine protected areas, such as the newly established Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument off Cape Cod, being the best tool. She said 9,600 areas encompassing 13 million square miles of ocean are being managed and protected but that is just 3 percent of the world’s oceans. While some fishermen oppose such areas, she said these areas help replenish the world’s fisheries, which is good for the fishermen.

In closing, she urged those in the crowd to take action and get involved with ocean conservation organizations.

“We can all make a difference on the local, state and national level by taking action,” she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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