“Shark attacks on human beings generate a tremendous amount of media coverage,” Benchley writes, “partly because they occur so rarely, but mostly, I think, because people are, and always have been, simultaneously intrigued and terrified by sharks. Sharks come from a wing of the dark castle where our nightmares live—deep water beyond our sight and understanding—and so they stimulate our fears and fantasies and imaginations.”
Benchley describes the many types of sharks (including the ones that pose a genuine threat to man), what is and isn’t known about shark behavior, the odds against an attack and how to reduce them even further—all reinforced with the lessons he has learned, the mistakes he has made, and the personal perils he has encountered while producing television documentaries, bestselling novels, and articles about the sea and its inhabitants. He tells how to swim safely in the ocean, how to read the tides and currents, what behavior to avoid, and how to survive when danger suddenly strikes. He discusses how to tell children about sharks and the sea and how to develop, in young and old alike, a healthy respect for the ocean.
As Benchley says, “The ocean is the only alien and potentially hostile environment on the planet intowhich we tend to venture without thinking about the animals that live there, how they behave, how they support themselves, and how they perceive us. I know of no one who would set off into the jungles of Malaysia armed only with a bathing suit, a tube of suntan cream, and a book, and yet that’s precisely how we approach the oceans.”
No longer. Not after you’ve read Shark Trouble.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 8, 1940
Date of Death:February 12, 2006
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:Princeton, New Jersey
Education:Phillips Exeter Academy; B.A. in English, Harvard University, 1961
Read an Excerpt
South Australia, 1974
Swimming with Nightmares
Let's start with a story about sharks: Dangerous Reef, in the Neptunes Islands, 1974.
Blinded by blood, nauseated by the taste of fish guts, whale oil, and putrid horse flesh, I gripped the aluminum bars of the shark cage to steady myself against the violent, erratic jolts as the cage was tossed by the choppy sea. A couple of feet above, the surface was a prism that scattered rays of gray from the overcast sky; below, the bottom was a dim plain of sand sparsely covered with strands of waving grass.
The water was cold, a spill from the chill Southern Ocean that traversed the bottom of the world, and my core body heat was dropping; it could no longer warm the seepage penetrating my neoprene wetsuit. I shivered, and my teeth chattered against the rubber mouthpiece of my regulator.
Happy now? I thought to myself. Ten thousand miles you flew, for the privilege of freezing to death in a sea of stinking chum.
I envisioned the people on the boat above, warmed by sunlight and cups of steaming tea, cozy in their woolen sweaters: my wife, Wendy; the film crew from ABC-TV's American Sportsman; the boat crew and their leader, Rodney Fox, the world's most celebrated shark-attack survivor.
I thought of the animal I was there to see: the great white shark, largest of all the carnivorous fish in the sea. Rarely had it been seen under water; rarer still were motion pictures of great whites in the wild.
And I thought of why I was bobbing alone in a flimsy cage in the frigid sea: I had written a novel about that shark, and had called it Jaws, and when it had unexpectedly become apopular success, a television producer had challenged me to go diving with the monster of my imagination. How could I say no?
Now, though, I wondered how I could have said yes.
Visibility was poorten feet? Twenty? It was impossible to gauge because nothing moved against the walls of blue gloom surrounding me. I turned, slowly, trying to see in all directions at once, peering over, under, beside the clouds of blood that billowed vividly against the blue green water.
I had expected to find silence under water, but my breath roared, like wind in a tunnel, as I inhaled through my regulator, and my exhales gurgled noisily, like bubbles being blown through a straw in a drink. Waves slapped against the loose-fitting top hatch of the cage, the welded joints creaked with every torque and twist, and when the rope that tethered the cage to the boat drew taut, there was a thudding, straining noise and the clank of the steel ring scraping against its anchor plate.
Then I saw movement. Something was moving against the blue. Something dark. It was there and gone and there again, not moving laterally, as I'd thought it would, not circling, but coming straight at me, slowly, deliberately, unhurried, emerging from the mist.
I stopped breathingnot intentionally but reflexively, as if by suspending my breath I could suspend all animationand I heard my pulse hammering in my ears. I wasn't afraid, exactly; I had been afraid, before, on the boat, but by now I had passed through fear into a realm of excitement and something like shocked disbelief.
There it is! Feel the pressure in the water as the body moves through it. The size of it! My God, the size!
The animal kept coming, and now I could see all of it: the pointed snout, the steel gray upper body in stark contrast with the ghostly white undercarriage, the symmetry of the pectoral fins, the awful knife blade of the dorsal fin, the powerful, deliberate back-and-forth of the scythelike tail fin that propelled the enormous body toward me, steadily, inexorably, as if it had no need for speed, for it knew it could not be stopped.
It did not slow, did not hesitate. Its black eyes registered neither interest nor excitement. As it drew within a few feet of me, it opened its mouth and I saw, first, the lower jaw crowded with jagged, needle-pointed teeth, and thenas the upper jaw detached from the skull and dropped downwardthe huge, triangular cutting teeth, each side serrated like a saw blade.
The great white's mouth opened wider and wider, until it seemed it would engulf the entire cage, and me within it. Transfixed, I stared into the huge pink-and-white cavern that narrowed into a black hole, the gullet. I could see rows and rows of spare teeth buried in the gum tissue, each tooth a holstered weapon waiting to be summoned forward to replace a tooth lost in battle. Far back on each side of the massive head, gill flaps fluttered open and shut, admitting flickering rays of light.
A millisecond before the mouth would have collided with the cage, the great white bit down, rammed forward by a sudden thrust of its powerful tail. The upper teeth struck first, four inches from my face, scraping noisilyhorriblyagainst the aluminum bars. Then the lower teeth gnashed quickly, as if seeking something solid in which to sink.
I shrank back, stumbling, as if through molasses, until I could cringe in relative safety in a far corner of the cage.
My brain shouted, You...you of all people, ought to know: HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT BELONG IN THE WATER WITH GREAT WHITE SHARKS!
The shark withdrew, then quickly bit the cage again, and again, and not till the third or fourth bite did I realize that there was something desultory about the attack. It seemed less an assault than an exploration, a testing. A tasting.
Then the shark turned, showing its flank, and by instinct I crept forward and extended my hand between the bars to feel its skin. Hard, it felt, and solid, a torpedo of muscle, sleek and polished like steel. I let my fingers trail along with the movement of the animal. But when I rubbed the other way, against the grain, I felt the legendary sandpaper texture, the harsh abrasiveness of the skin's construction: millions upon millions of minuscule toothlike particles, the dermal denticles.
The shark was moving away, upward; it had found a hunk of quartered horse, probably ten pounds, possibly twenty, dangling in the chum. The shark's mouth opened andin a split-second mechanical replay of the bite on the cageit swallowed the chunk of horse whole. Its gullet bulged once as the meat and bone passed through on its way to the gut.
Tantalized now, the shark turned again in search of something more to eat. It bit randomly, gaping and snapping as if hoping that the next bite, or the next, would prove fruitful.
I saw a length of rope drift into its gaping mouth: the lifeline, I realized, the only connection between the cage and the boat.
Drift out again. Don't get caught. Not in the mouth. Please.
The great white's mouth closed and opened, closed and opened; the shark shook its head, trying to rid itself of the rope. But the rope was stuck.
In a fraction of a second, I saw that the rope had snagged between twoperhaps three or fourof the shark's teeth.
At that instant, neurons and synapses in the shark's small, primitive brain must have connected and sent a message of alarm, of entrapment, for suddenly the shark seemed to panic. Instinct commandeered its tremendous strength and great weightat least a ton, I knew, spread over the animal's fourteen-foot lengthand detonated an explosion of frenzied thrashing.
The shark's tail whipped one way and its head the other; its body slammed against the cage, against the boat, between the cage and the boat. I was upside down, then on my side, then bashed against the side of the boat. There was no up and no down for me, only a burst of bubbles amid a cloud of blood and shreds of flesh from the chum and the butchered horse.
What are they doing up there? Don't they see what's going on down here? Why doesn't somebody do something?
For a second I saw the shark's head and the rope that had disappeared into its mouthand that's the last thing I remember seeing for a long, long time. For when the shark's tail bashed the cage again, the cage slid down four or five feet and swung into the darkness beneath the boat.
I knew what would happen next; I had heard of it happening once before: the shark's teeth would sever the rope. My survival would depend on precisely where the rope was severed. If the shark found itself free of the cage, it would flee, leaving the cage to drift away and, perhaps, sink. Someone from the boat would get a line to me. Eventually.
But if the rope stayed caught in the shark's mouth, the animal might drag the cage to the bottom, fifty feet away, and beat it to pieces. If I were to have a chance of surviving, I would have to find the rope, grab it, and cut it, all while being tumbled about like dice in a cup.
I reached for the knife in the rubber sheath strapped to my leg.
This isn't really happening. It can't be! I'm just a writer! I write fiction!
It was happening, though, and somewhere in the chaos of my beleaguered brain I appreciated the irony.
How many other writers, I wondered, have had the privilege of writing the story that foretells their own grisly demise?
Peter Benchley Goes on the Attack for Sharks
Jaws author Peter Benchley speaks up for a misunderstood beast in Shark Trouble. Science & Nature editor Laura Wood shares her email conversation with the author.
Barnes & Noble.com: As you can imagine, I have read an untold number of nonfiction science books, and I can say that your novel-writing skills certainly made the subject come alive. Was writing this nonfiction book a different kind of experience for you, or are the same principles at work?
Peter Benchley: It was both at once. When I was telling the stories about experiences I've had, things that have happened to me, encounters with sharks, I found myself constructing the tales as if they were part of a novel: emphasizing the suspense, directing the peaks and valleys so as to maintain reader interest, et cetera. At the same time, however, I had to restrain my fictional impulse, so as not to warp the truth. My training in journalism helped a lot. I recalled many of the basic lessons I learned at Newsweek and The Washington Post years ago and have kept fresh by writing for National Geographic magazine, among others: Write tightly, write clearly, write a lead that involves the reader, and stick to the facts.
B&N.com: As you point out, sharks fascinate people because they are one of a handful of large predators left on the planet. As terrifying as they might be, the sad fact today is that we are much more of a threat to them than they are to us. From your book it seems like you came around to a conservation point of view after the success of Jaws, when you were the "talent" for various underwater documentaries.
PB: When I was writing Jaws (30 years ago! ye gods!), my -- and the world's -- environmental sensibility had barely been born. Earth Day was only a year old. Most people still believed that the oceans were eternal and invincible, immune to anything man could possibly do to them. And very few people knew anything about sharks, especially great white sharks. There was so little literature on them, and so few people had any experience with them, that, for research, I relied heavily on the superb 1971 documentary film Blue Water, White Death and the book that accompanied it, Peter Matthiessen's Blue Meridian.
The success of Jaws led to invitations to do television shows, especially for ABC's legendary American Sportsman series, and those shows gave me the opportunity to learn enormous amounts about the oceans and their inhabitants. The more I came to know, the more sensitized I became to the problems in the seas. I was able to work at the side of great scientists and ocean conservationists like Dr. Sylvia Earle and Dr. Eugenie Clark (the celebrated "shark lady"). We became friends and, to this day, we work together on conservation projects. I quickly grew to regard sharks and the sea with great respect rather than fear, and that respect, in turn, let me to immerse myself in conservation issues. Today I'm on the National Board of Environmental Defense and am a spokesman for other marine-oriented organizations.
B&N.com: I liked the way you described the public's attitude toward the ocean. As you said, no one would wander into the Amazon with nothing but a bathing suit and suntan lotion, yet the ocean is really a wilderness. For the most part, are the people you talk with ready to change their attitudes?
PB: I've always been amazed at how little guidance the public is given about ocean safety. The Red Cross, of course, has always offered water-safety programs, but relatively few people (compared to the number who venture into the sea, that is) take advantage of them. This is due partly, I think, to our resistance to recognizing the sea as the great and untamed wilderness it is. The sea is right there, in our backyard, and it doesn't occur to us that there could be any peril in plunging into it. One of the most astonishing facts I came across while doing research for Shark Trouble is that more than 80 percent of all living things on earth live in the sea. And they all, naturally, have to eat.
A primary reason I wrote the book was to incorporate as much helpful information as I could in one accessible place, so that people who want to know about anything from drown-proofing to shark attacks can find basic knowledge, at least, in a single source. A lot of people who have heard about the book have shared your reaction: "Why haven't I heard this stuff before?"
B&N.com: Earth without wild animals would lack something vital. However, if humans are going to share the planet with any wild animals then we must understand that they have their own agendas and act accordingly. Then there is the gray area where wild animals have learned that we will provide them with something they want -- a pact that must not be broken. Your story about your son and the moray eel was a sad commentary on how we put these animals into a situation where a misunderstanding is inevitable and they will be the losers. Do you see this becoming even more of a problem in the near future?
PB: Yes. As more and more people interact with marine animals, misunderstandings will be inevitable. Any time a human has intentional contact with a wild animal -- be it a lion, a bear, a dolphin or a shark -- he or she is taking a calculated risk. The more you know, of course, the better your calculations can be, but there will always be mistakes.
B&N.com: It seems like the bottom line is that the author of Jaws has become a shark hugger (metaphorically, of course)?
PB: Never, ever, try to hug a shark. It's okay to hug a tree, because trees haven't been known to bite, but a shark...? Very poor idea.
What I definitely have become (to the best of my ability) is a shark protector, a shark advocate, a shark appreciator, and above all, a shark respecter. Sharks have an extremely important place in the natural order; they've been around, practically unchanged, for 30 or 40 million years, and we're just beginning to learn how complex and wonderful they are. I know so much more about sharks than I did when I wrote Jaws that I couldn't possibly write the same story today.
B&N.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
PB: I hope that Shark Trouble will entertain readers, of course, but I hope, too, that it will give them some helpful information. Finally, I hope it will dispel many of the myths about sharks -- some of which, I know, Jaws helped perpetuate.
Perhaps the most surprising single thing about Jaws to me is that it has had such a long life. These days, I receive about 1,000 letters a year from youngsters who weren't alive when the book was published or the movie released, and none of them ever writes about how scary the story is or how dangerous sharks are. They all think sharks are awesome, neat, cool, and fascinating. They all want to know more about sharks.
For a writer -- for this writer, anyway -- there's nothing more gratifying.