Benchley writes in his new book, Shark Trouble: "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."
Here, Benchley shares some insights on one of nature's most fascinating predators with National Geographic News.
NG: What was it about sharks that drew you to them, that inspired you to spend so much of your life studying and writing about them?
PB: I believe implicitly that every young man in the world is fascinated with either sharks or dinosaurs. I grew up spending my summers on Nantucket, fishing and swimming, so whereas some kids were into dinosaurs, I was naturally into sharks. I've been lucky enough to follow that obsession into adulthood.
You've dived often with sharks, including great whites. What is it like to get such a dramatic reminder of our relative place in the food chain?
I'm going down to South Africa in about two weeks to dive with great whites again, and every time you get into the water with a great white you feel completely insignificant. Not only from the fear but also from the sense of how absolutely perfect that animal is in its environment, and how out of place you are. We have a terrible feeling of superiority and don't really respect the fact that the world's greatest wilderness is at our back door. So when you see a 2,000- or 3,000-pound animal swimming up and considering whether or not you're edible, it's quite a humbling experience.
There is so much misinformation and fear about sharks in our society. What are some of the most common and off-base misperceptions?
The most common and off-base misperception is the theory that sharks target humans, that they are man-eaters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every time you see on TV people surrounded by sharks, the chances are 99 percent that [the sharks] have been baited, and it gives a false impression because by nature sharks will stay away from people.
Shark-diving operations, in which tourists hope to encounter sharks, have been a matter of some debate. Some people feel it conditions sharks to regard humans as a food source. How do you feel about such operations?
I think when it's done correctly, responsibly, and professionally it's a good thing because the sharks are conditioned only in a very specific area and the pros do it in an area where no one should be swimming. Near a popular beach, it would be terrible. I think the danger of conditioning sharks to associate humans with food has been overplayed. And when people are attacked in a broad area, remotely near where sharks are fed, some people are making an automatic and erroneous leap that sharks are associating humans as food.
We are not saying that sharks associate humans as food. With a few exceptions, attacks on humans, when they do happen, are accidents. One thing we discovered while working on the National Geographic article ["Great White: Deep Trouble," April 2000] is that within a few seconds a great white can determine whether what they've bitten is calorically economical. Is it worth the expenditure of calories? Will it give back more than the effort that the shark puts in? Time and time again you see cases where enormous great white sharks have bitten or scraped a human and just turned away because they've determined, no, this is not what I want to eat.
That said, there are certainly always exceptions, so that rule is not something that you want to stake your life on.
Sharks have more to fear from us than vice versa, and many species have become threatened by overfishing. How concerned are you about the decline of some sharks?
Several species have been devastated to a point where scientists believe that as much as 80 to 90 percent of their populations have been killed. It's hard to maintain a shark census because they don't breathe, don't surface, as whales do, so it's hard to count them. Nobody is suggesting that there is going to be actual extermination of any species in the very near future, but certainly they might be reduced to numbers where they can't sustain themselves, because apex predators like sharks don't exist in great numbers and they don't reproduce quickly.
It's becoming a cliché, but there are too many fishermen with too much modern gear chasing too few fish. Especially now, as fishermen chase sharks for their valuable fins, used in shark fin soup, they are keeping even sharks caught accidentally on longlines. It's a horrible situation and there is very little shark management around the world. Unlike swordfish, whales, or other ocean species that people have become concerned about, there has been no constituency for sharks.
What do you make of the media coverage of shark attacks, such as in the summer of 2001, when in fact attacks are infrequent and rarely fatal?
The so-called Summer of the Shark, pronounced on the cover of Time magazine in July 2001, only existed because Time proclaimed it so. The statistics did not support that assertion, and in fact at the end of the year the number of attacks and fatalities was actually down.
I believe it has to do with a change in how the media works, the volume of coverage with cable television, the Internet, cell phones, and satellites. So a local shark attack—a non-fatal attack that would normally have gotten no coverage at all beyond maybe a mention in the local paper—is now all over the world. Like one weekend last summer when perhaps six people were bitten by sharks in a single weekend (in Volusia County, Florida). It turned out that sharks were schooling and feeding right off the beach, in plain sight, and that these people were surfers so impatient to catch waves that they waded out across the top of the sharks, stepping over feeding sharks.
After a while, perception becomes reality. After you see so many reports of attacks, you begin to think it extraordinary, because you've never seen so many reports of attacks. It's because the changing media is reporting them differently, not because there are an extraordinary amount of attacks.
In your new book you discuss how to speak with kids about sharks and the sea. Can you share some of those thoughts about a common-sense approach to the ocean?
To me the best thing is to educate kids to grow up respecting the ocean and knowing about it. If they grow up ignorant of it they will never learn the kind of respect that will preserve the ocean, and also themselves. They've got to be taught that it's the greatest wilderness on the planet, and that 80 percent of all the living things on the planet live there, and that they've got to eat. We have no entitlement to swim safely there. We're the alien there, and we have to play by their rules. It's similar to driving a car—you don't license people to drive until they know the basics.
There should be some way to educate kids to understand what they're doing when they swim in the ocean, and to understand how to take precautions against ocean conditions like tides, currents, and the like. Also to heed the hungry animals who live there. People tend to place themselves at the top of the marine food chain, as well as the terrestrial, but they're not.