In 1975 wunderkind Steven Spielberg directed the movie that defined the summer blockbuster as an American genre. It was Jaws. “Don’t go in the water…” It’ll make your brain’s newly discovered lymphatic system go haywire.“
The movie turns 40 this summer. Watch it July 7 outside, on land (thankfully there’s no such thing as land sharks) at the Visionary Art Museum’s Flicks From The Hill and sing along with Quint the old sea shanty “Farewell and Adieu Spanish Ladies” and scare yourself out of your itsy-bisty-teenie-weenie yellow polkadot bikini again.
The Pew Charitable Trust’s Global Shark Conservation team wrote recently, “‘Jaws,’ helped establish the erroneous, and, sadly, enduring image of sharks as vicious, voracious man-eaters.”
Here’s what the movie got wrong.
The great white shark is not cunning and vengeful. Sharks are not “mindless eating machines.” They do have a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, and they are an apex predator of the sea, but it is sleek fat seals they’re after, not you, even though you may resemble — as I do in my tankini with a granny-skirt — a sleek fat seal.
In fact, a robust shark population is a sign of the ocean’s health. The ocean needs sharks just as the African savannah needs lions.
But tens of millions of sharks are killed every year. They’re gruesomely finned and thrown back for shark fin soup, caught accidentally and drowned in ocean garbage, and fished by the testosterone-fueled for trophies of man’s triumph against nature. We’re not in danger because of sharks. Sharks are in danger because of us.
Peter Benchley, who wrote the best-selling book on which the movie was based, regretted that he had created a monster where there was none. He worked for the rest of his life on shark research and marine conservation. The man who wrote ominously, “The great fish swam silently through the night water,” (which is such a great line) later wrote, “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.”
Find the fossilized teeth of the sharks that used to ply the Chesapeake here. Learn more about great white sharks here. And here see the real-time pings of the tagged mature female great white shark (her name is Mary Lee) that was recently sighted off the coast of Ocean City and Assateague.
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