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The Environmental Side of Peter Benchley

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBEERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The writer Peter Benchley died on Saturday. He was 65 and, according to relatives quoted in published obituaries, he suffered from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a scarring of the lungs. He was the third generation Benchley to entertain the nation. His grandfather was the humorist Robert Benchley. His father Nathaniel Benchley wrote the movie, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. But Peter Benchley did something more than entertain us, he also terrified America. He wrote the book and worked on the screenplay of Jaws. Convincing a generation of American kids that the ocean surf was the murderous realm of carnivorous monsters.

He did that so successfully that Benchley, despite prior careers as newspaper reporter, White House speechwriter, and magazine writer, will forever be remembered as the man who demonized the shark. Among those who set out to defend the shark against this and other outrages was Peter Benchley himself. David Festa is Director of Oceans Programs at the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense. And David Festa, Peter Benchley worked with you.

DAVID FESTA: Oh yes he did. He was our ambassador for the Oceans Program, and would frequently headline events for us or co-author opinion pieces that we wanted placed in different publications, and was a general counsel and advisor to the program along with his wife Wendy.

SIEGEL: And this had to do with some remorse over what he had done to the shark and the oceans in his novel?

FESTA: You know I'm not quite sure it was ever remorse over what he had done to the shark in the novel. It really was more a fascination with the mysteries of the ocean and some of the tragedies going on in terms of, you know, how we're treating the oceans. And it was the process of writing Jaws that really introduced him to this fascinating world.

SIEGEL: I can remember at one point Jacques Cousteau publicly rushing to the defense of the shark saying that the notion of a shark attack, it was at least vastly, I think Cousteau at one point said there were no shark attacks documented. But did Peter Benchley, if not go that far, did he become pro shark?

NORRIS: Oh quite, oh absolutely. And if you remember, when, there's a scene in Jaws where they're trying to find out more about sharks, and there's, like, two books that they find and that's it. And that was very indicative of the state of knowledge of sharks in the 70's. And Peter was at the forefront, actually, of research and advocacy of really understanding what the sharks were about. It was a passion that he took from then forward.

SIEGEL: You were at Environmental Defense events where Peter Benchley would speak.

FESTA: Oh yes, yes. He was quite a draw. We did an event down at the University of Miami where they said it was the most people they'd ever seen show up for an event that wasn't a sporting event. And of course it wasn't to see Environmental Defense or really hear about conservation, it was to hear from a guy that scared the bejeezes out of them.

SIEGEL: Did lots of 20 and 30 something's come up and say, thanks to you I've been afraid of the ocean ever since?

FESTA: No. No. Actually it was just the opposite. It was an incredible, every time we spoke there would always be people coming up and talking to him about the impact that he had with his conservation work and his conservation writing on getting them interested in being a marine biologist. Or, I remember one time a charter boat captain, a guy that takes individuals out fishing usually for sharks, came up and they swapped stories of the old days. And, and finally there was a little pause and he just sort of quietly said, you know I don't do that anymore. And they talked about why, and it had to do with some of the things that Peter had written, and some of the ideas that Peter had talked about.

SIEGEL: So the oceans, and even the sharks, have lost a friend with the death of Peter Benchley.

FESTA: Tragically yes.

SIEGEL: David Festa of Environmental Defense. Thank you very much for talking with us.

FESTA: My pleasure, thank you.

SIEGEL: And Peter Benchley was heard on public radio from time to time taking about conservation and the sea. Here is a clip from member station WBUR's The Connection.

PETER BENCHLEY: The ocean is the largest wilderness on the planet, and it is right at our backdoor. And while we would no more go into the jungle dressed in a bathing suit and carrying with us for protection a book and a tube of suntan cream, we seem to feel we have the right to safety by stepping into the enormous wilderness where 80 percent of the living things on the planet live and have to eat.

SIEGEL: That's Peter Benchley, author of Jaws who died over the weekend at the age of 65. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.