Universal Pictures

Saving the Shark

The past few weeks have been critical for sharks as American cultural icons. While these lions and tigers of the sea are in the public spotlight, it’s an opportunity to call for their global conservation. It’s also time to appreciate the role of the 1975 Steven Spielberg film Jaws in promoting and preserving the shark, as well as demonizing it.

Jaws enthusiasts have seen a spate of recent activity. Richard Zanuck, one of the film’s two producers, passed away on July 13. Between August 9th and 12th, JawsFest arrived in Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate the film’s legacy. On August 14, Universal Studios released a new, digitally remastered version of Jaws on Blu-Ray, complete with new bonus features. Media coverage of this “month of the shark” has focused on fear—on prolonging the man-eater mythology that, for many, saw its heyday in Jaws. Although an average of only 65 people worldwide are injured by sharks each year, fear sells.

It’s easy for shark conservationists to dismiss this sensationalism in favor of the munificent rationalism of professional outfits like the Pew Environment Group’s Global Shark Conservation Center. These and other shark conservation groups circulate hugely significant news on shark population declines and species protection legislation.

For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has conducted studies of numerous shark and ray species and found that 30 percent are threatened or near-threatened. The Pew Environment Group has worked globally to save the shark, and their activism has helped created sanctuaries for the species in Palau, the Maldives, the Bahamas, and Honduras. Nearly 926,645 square miles of ocean around the world are closed to shark fishing, and the U.S. Shark Conservation Act, signed into law in January 2011, holds promise to continue a positive trend.

Marine conservation organizations underline the grave need for further research to define the scope of the global problem. For as many as 47 percent of shark species, scientists lack sufficient data to draw conclusions about population health. But shark populations continue to dwindle due to the growing popularity of shark fin soup. As important as professional efforts are, they cannot match the power of popular culture. And that’s why Jaws, the first summer Hollywood blockbuster, should be an ally in the cause of shark conservation.

Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws the novel, believed in preserving sharks as a natural wonder. His book buried this message in smut and melodrama. Jaws the film, however, aimed for art. Its screenplay was a product of several writers, including Benchley, actor Carl Gottlieb, and actor Robert Shaw. It raises a devil from the sea, but does so with poetry.

The script offers no better oratory than Captain Quint’s speech on the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Before the speech, Police Chief Martin Brody and Oceanographic Institute scientist, Matt Hooper, are gathered around the ship’s galley with Quint, telling stories and comparing scars.

When they discover the captain’s history as a World War II Navy sailor, all is suddenly quiet on deck, and Quint begins his tale:

Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte…just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb.

Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer. You know, you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. Well, we didn’t know. ‘Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent, huh. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin.’ So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it’s…kinda like ‘ol squares in battle like uh, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away.

Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin.’ Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces. Y’know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour.

On Thursday mornin’ chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, bosom’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well…he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He’s a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.

So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

Brody and Hooper stare in silence after the speech. Only the song of a distant whale interrupts the calm. This speech draws Quint in three dimensions, and lends integrity to his listeners. The massacre at sea has left Quint humble before nature. The background of war reinforces the magnitude of the death toll he describes.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis speech is the heaviest scene in Jaws. After the laughs about the malfunctioning and unnatural-looking shark model and the scares from severed heads and legs, the scene still anchors the film in reality. It also happens to be Steven Spielberg’s favorite moment in the film. The film’s characterization of oceanographic expert Matt Hooper, deftly played by Richard Dreyfus, also strengthens its legitimacy as a gateway to the world of sharks.

Hooper offers cool rationality in tense situations and genuine passion for marine science. He is a sailor, a scientist, and a hero—a rare combination for Hollywood. Shark enthusiasts and conservationists alike should embrace Jaws as a cultural milestone for the sea’s prime predator. It has been viewed by millions and will be enjoyed by millions more. It’s a film that rewards that patient ear and the watchful eye.

Cultural symbolism can cause species extinction; many regions in Asia view shark fin soup as a delicacy and a social status symbol. The more that Southeast Asia grows, the higher the demand for shark fishing and the greater the slaughter at sea. But cultural symbolism is also an essential tool for conservationists. National symbolism has aided the cause of the bald eagle and the bison. The shark may have to depend on the legacy of one great script.