You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

| Fri May 20, 2011 6:12 PM EDT

When I heard about the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, I was at first a little confused. I knew the name from his renown as the writer behind Jaws, which of course became a film that scared the living bejesus out of me as a child. I was not aware, however, that Peter Benchley committed much of his life to environmental activism after the book, specifically to shark conservation.

His fame came largely from his 1972 novel by the same title about a man-eating terror, upon which the infamous film was based. But now, even after his death in 2006, his legacy of calling attention to the misunderstood beasts continues. For the last four years, his wife, Wendy, has dedicated an award in his name that honors work to protect the ocean and its inhabitants in a variety of areas—science, public policy, media. This year's award ceremony is Saturday night here in DC.

I recently spoke to Wendy Benchley, who is also the director of Shark Savers, a non-profit that, as the name implies, is dedicated to saving sharks. I wanted to know more about what inspired the shark love, given that my own thought after watching Jaws wasn't to run out and hug a great white.

"He was just hooked by the power of this beautiful shark," she said, noting that her husband went on to write both fiction and nonfiction about the ocean. "I would certainly say that Jaws is what opened the ocean world to us and allowed us to go and dive, to research, study and educate ourselves about the ocean and do what we could to try to help with the issues."

She continued, "Peter's life mirrors recognition that the ocean is a complicated, vital place, and over last 30 years we've been systematically damaging it."

She notes that while some people may have read Jaws and been terrified (like me), there are also many for whom the book inspired a love of the water. "I would place my best that for every person who was terrified, there were 10, 20, or 100 who were fascinated."

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