Tribute to Peter Benchley, Author and Conservationist
WildAid lost a dear friend this week as author and ocean advocate Peter Benchley sadly passed away, aged 65. Our condolences and best wishes are with his wife, Wendy, and the rest of their family in Princeton, New Jersey.
Peter had been seriously ill since last year, but when I last spoke to him we had hoped that his health would return and we were looking forward to traveling together again and perhaps even getting to dive with sharks, as he would have been writing an article about our work to protect sharks in the Galapagos and Asia.
I had the honor of getting to know him on the 25th anniversary of "Jaws", in 2000 when he accompanied WildAid on an exhausting public awareness tour of the UK, Australia and Asia to spread the message that "Jaws" was fiction and the facts are that sharks are the victims and not the villains. He tirelessly and eloquently drove the message home that they have more to fear from us than we from them. The media had their own feeding frenzy on this twist to their normal shark fare.
Ever the great storyteller, Peter had enthralled me with his experiences as young and naïve speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson, his time as a journalist and of how to his utter surprise his first novel "Jaws" became a bestseller. I also listened to the fascinating trials and tribulations of the movie that terrified the world and introduced our most successful movie director, Steven Spielberg.
Peter, who loved the ocean with a fierce passion, was saddened that "Jaws" might have contributed to increased trophy fishing of sharks and their demonization, but he was the first to point out that sharks had been vilified and overfished long before the book was written. When asked if he regretted writing it he would answer that he could not regret something that had given him such opportunity in life - but that if he wrote it today it would be a very different story. In 1974 Peter had consulted numerous shark experts to inform his work of fiction, but the state of knowledge for great whites was pitifully low. It was thought that there were "rogue" sharks and that what we now know is curiosity was then seen as aggression. "Jaws" tapped into our fear of the unknown and our sense vulnerability when at sea like no other book or movie did.
While best known for his novels and screenplays such as "The Deep" in 1976, "The Island" in 1979 and "Beast," Peter spent much of his time and a greater part of his energy and intellect working to protect our marine environments.
Peter was a passionate conservationist, a gifted writer, an eloquent speaker. In my mind he was a true gentleman and we are all the poorer for his premature departure.