JAWS Reconsidered

1975 was the year the White Shark became 'Great' and all sharks acquired an internationally recognized musical theme. More than any other event, the movie JAWS revolutionized the public's conception of sharks. Whether they recognize it or not, just about every scrap of scaffolding underlying 'common knowledge' about sharks comes from that one, 25-year-old film. Who, at the time, could have known that the world's first Summer Blockbuster would so powerfully transform popular culture?

From today's perspective, the world of 1975 seems like a distant, simpler, and less stressful place. Sure, the World at large - and America, too - had its problems, but at least children didn't shoot one another in the schoolyard. And if anyone thought about sharks at all, it was usually a flickering idle fancy quickly banished by the reassuring belief that the truly dangerous ones were always 'somewhere else'. JAWS changed all that, transforming sharks in general - and Great Whites in particular - into sea-going homicidal maniacs lurking just out of sight off your local beach, ready to shred your very own personal body into strips of bloody flesh or to simply gobble you whole. Unlike previous monster movies, there were no reassuring laughs after the shudders. These aquatic 'monsters' were very real and they could strike in the most ordinary and harmless-seeming of places.

In response, legions of macho idiots with a deep and abiding need to express their manliness through mindless violence, headed to sea to do 'battle' with sharks. But rather than meet sharks on their own terms, these yobbos (generally financially well-off and often pissed as newts) picked their fights from the safety of state-of-the-art craft armed with rods, harpoons, guns and explosives. Thousands upon thousands of sharks were slaughtered, mostly small, inoffensive species that were about as dangerous as kittens or those ridiculously dull, blunt-ended scissors they give kindergarten students. But, as the absolute 'baddest' of the 'bad-ass' sharks, the Great White was sought out in particular. Unknown numbers of these relatively uncommon sharks were tortured and killed, their jaws and teeth ripped out as grotesque 'trophies' and the remainder of the carcasses unceremoniously discarded. Such behavior is a disgusting waste of wildlife and helped make the already scarce White Shark even more scarce.

In these kinder, gentler, more ecologically-sensitive times, JAWS has been strongly condemned as the impetus for the shark slaughtering obscenities of the past and the disconcerting scarcity of White Sharks in the present. Even Peter Benchley, whose 1973 novel JAWS gave rise to the film of the same name, has repeatedly expressed regret that something he wrote resulted in the needless slaughter of so many sharks. In a recent National Geographic article and film, he seemed to be trying to atone, in some small way, for the havoc he unintentionally wrought on White Shark populations.

But there's another side to this story, one that I feel has not been given adequate consideration:  in addition to its negative impacts on sharks, JAWS has also spawned some very positive effects. Of these, it seems to me that the two most important are, 1) the film ignited the imaginations and inspired the careers of a whole new generation of shark biologists, and 2) the sudden public interest in sharks caused a major resurgence in funding to support basic shark research.

I was nine when I first saw JAWS. At the time, I had been fascinated by sharks for several years and was perennially hungry to know more about them. Rather than being scared out of the water by JAWS, I wanted to grow up to be just like Matt Hooper. He was, after all, the only character who really understood why the shark was doing what it was doing and the only one who had any idea about how to deal with it. And Hooper was no mere amateur - he actually studied sharks for a living. I never imagined that such a job existed, let alone fancied that I could end up doing something like that. I decided then and there that, whatever it took, I was going to become a shark biologist, so I could spend the rest of my life learning everything I could about sharks.

I don't believe for a moment that I am alone in this chain of events. Indeed, I suspect that a very high percentage of the newly-minted shark scientists of today were originally 'turned onto' the idea of pursuing shark biology as a career by the movie JAWS.

Shark research is often an expensive pursuit and without funding it quickly runs aground. But the massive public interest in sharks - whether inspired by fear or fascination - revealed just how little was known about these animals scientifically and made it somewhat easier to secure funding from government and private sources to rectify that suddenly intolerable state of ignorance. In the wake of JAWS, a whole constellation of dedicated shark research programs were begun or renewed. This resulted in numerous scientific symposia to allow researchers to share their results and collaborate on more ambitious projects. To date, some 22 of these symposia (including two dedicated to the biology of White Sharks) have been published in English, making a wealth of new data and ideas available to present and future shark researchers. Rather than focusing on the subject of shark attacks, these symposia concentrated on shark systematics, physiology, life history, ecology, fisheries management and conservation.  Indeed, it is probably safe to say that we have learned more about sharks since JAWS than we have in all previous recorded history. And it is doubtful that as much public interest and funding would have been available to support modern shark research had it not been for JAWS.

It seems likely that the more enlightened, more tolerant view of sharks many of us hold today ultimately owes much to JAWS. While the unfortunate, knee-jerk reaction to the film was a regrettable increase in the mass slaughter of sharks, eventually our unwarranted shark paranoias were replaced with new knowledge and a greatly increased appreciation of sharks as wildlife. Therefore, on the balance of things, I believe JAWS was a positive thing for sharks because, as a direct and indirect consequence of that film, the odds favoring future survival of these animals is very much improved.

As far as Peter Benchley's conscience is concerned, I am reminded of a favorite quote attributed to the late, great pioneer science fiction editor John Campbell: "You can't ever do only one thing." Every action has multiple effects - some good, some not-so-good. The novel JAWS that started it all may have had some initial not-so-good consequences for sharks, but it seems to me that the overall effect has been positive. Relax, Mr. Benchley:  thanks to the current generation of shark scientists and the mass of new research inspired as a result of JAWS, sharks in general and White Sharks in particular are, on the main, probably far better off than they might have been.

 
 

ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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