May 11, 2022

Wendy Benchley Speaks About Her Work Saving Sharks and Protecting the Oceans

MAGNIFICENT CREATURES: While less in peril than in the past, sharks are still endangered, said Wendy Benchley during a talk last week at the Present Day Club.

By Anne Levin

Former Boudinot Street resident Wendy Benchley came back to Princeton last week to talk about her unceasing efforts to save sharks, conserve the oceans, and advocate for a cleaner, safer environment.

Speaking May 4 to members of the Present Day Club, Benchley charmed the packed audience with some memories from the set of the 1975 movie Jaws, based on the best-selling book by her late husband Peter Benchley, before sharing sobering evidence about the treatment of sharks and the state of the world’s oceans.

Ultimately, though, Benchley left her listeners with hope for the future. “All of these issues take a long time to solve, but I am more hopeful than I’ve been in 40 years,” she said. “Funding for ocean conservation has tripled in the last 10 years. And we’ve quadrupled the number of MPAs (marine protected areas).”

The Benchleys were prominent residents of Princeton, where they moved from Pennington Borough after the success of Jaws. Peter Benchley died in 2006. Wendy Benchley served three terms on the former Princeton Borough Council starting in 2000. She now lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband John Jeppson III, whom she married in 2011.

“The success of Jaws was a complete surprise to Peter,” Benchley said. “It changed our lives. We became deeply involved in learning about sharks.”

Sharing some trivia and photos from the set of the movie, which was directed by a young Steven Spielberg, Benchley said, “It was great to be on Martha’s Vineyard, and we enjoyed it. Richard Dreyfuss, especially, was a riot of a guy. We had fun with him.”

Spielberg decided to make the killer shark in the movie 25 feet long. “That just does not exist,” Benchley said. “A really big one is 15, maybe 16 feet long. So Peter tried to tame some of these exaggerations. But he knew, really, to count his blessings, sit back, and enjoy the ride.”

An unfortunate result of the movie’s extraordinary success was that it fostered a fear of sharks, portraying them as monsters bent on massacring humans. Statistics have proven otherwise. “There had been an uptick, since the movie, of shark killings,” Benchley said. “We knew we had to do something to change the perception. We did see there was another side, of people who were really interested in sharks, and that was great to see.”

Soon after the movie, Peter Benchley was invited by ABC Sports to swim with the sharks in South Australia. Wendy Benchley went along, but was told to stay on the top deck of the boat while her husband got into a cage that was lowered into the water.

“The rope got caught in the shark’s teeth, and nobody seemed to notice that Peter was being thrashed around in the cage,” she recalled. “I ran down from the top of the boat to grab the rope out of the shark’s teeth.”

Benchley had a hard time learning to dive, but she mastered it. “When Peter asked me what I wanted for our 40th anniversary, I said I wanted to go dive with the great whites,” she said. They went to Guadeloupe, where Benchley was thrilled to be able to stroke a shark from head to tail. “Neither of us had ever seen a creature so magnificent,” she said.

The Benchleys began work with the Environmental Defense Fund and WildAid on ocean conservation. With the latter, they focused on sharks, especially the brutal killing of the animals to make shark fin soup. Due to WildAid’s advocacy, specifically in China, the practice has declined. Benchley showed two of the videos that are part of WildAid’s media campaign.

“We still have work to do,” Benchley said. “But the demand has plummeted by 80 percent.”

Visiting a dive resort in Misool, Indonesia, three years ago was especially rewarding for Benchley. The area is now protected, with rangers and radar patrolling the area to prevent illegal fishing. Former “shark finners” have become dive masters. “It’s a transformation,” she said. “There has been a 250 percent increase in fish and wildlife there in the last seven years. And Misool is just one example of a successful MPA.”

Benchley also talked about pollution from plastics. It “is at catastrophic levels, but the world is catching up and realizing that something has to be done,” she said. She cited the March 22 treaty signed at the United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, to reduce plastics in the oceans by 80 percent in 2024, as a positive sign.

“The oceans have an amazing ability to recover,” she said. “And they have to be kept intact to solve the climate crisis. I have hope.”