In 1974 Peter Benchley published the novel Jaws. It eventually sold 20 million copies. In 1975, Steven Spielberg released a film adaptation that went on to overtake The Godfather and become the highest grossing film before Star Wars came along. Today, it is the 7th highest grossing film of all time, and its classic plot and music are a well-known reference in our culture.
Since then, our fearsome fascination with these creatures has continued and been illustrated in our entertainment. Shark Week has become an annual televised event on the Discovery Channel since 1988. Jaws itself had three sequels and inspired a new genre of movies: about 50 killer shark movies have been made, and the more recent Sharknado was successful in spite of its ridiculously inane plot.
In spite of his success, Benchley came to regret writing the novel; he felt responsible for portraying sharks as ruthless, vindictive, man-eating predators. In 2000 we wrote for National Geographic:
“Considering the knowledge accumulated about sharks in the last 25 years, I couldn’t possibly write Jaws today … not in good conscience anyway. Back then, it was generally accepted that great whites were anthropophagus (they ate people) by choice. Now we know that almost every attack on a human is an accident: The shark mistakes the human for its normal prey.”
Unfortunately, this updated information hasn’t changed our aggression towards this largely harmless species. There are about 500 species of sharks, and only a dozen of which have posed a threat to humans. According to current statistics, sharks kill about 12 humans each year, and humans kill about 100 million sharks each year. Sharks are endangered, and humans thrive with our population at about 7.2 billion. It is a tragic situation that exemplifies the definition of the word, “overkill.”
Many of these sharks are killed for their fins through a cruel practice called shark finning. The sharks are caught, and their fins are cut off while they’re still alive. They are thrown back into the water, and since they can’t swim, they sink to the bottom of the ocean as other sea creatures eat them alive. They endure this suffering and butchery because there is a high demand for shark fin soup, a traditional symbol of wealth in Chinese cuisine. The unfortunate irony is that the fins themselves are tasteless, and shark meat has an unhealthy amount of mercury; however, they are sought after for their exotic, lucrative status.
In spite of the fact that humans are threatening sharks’ long-term existence, the notion of hunting sharks is still considered entertaining enough to spawn a reality show. In 2013, NBC Sports premiered Shark Hunters, a competition in which the contestants try to earn money by hunting the largest shark they can find. In the advertisement, they describe sharks as “the deadliest predator in the ocean.”
Aside from the sheer barbarism of the show’s premise, the notion that sharks are the deadliest is wrong. Sharks do have other predators: orcas, octopi, and more importantly, humans. We kill more marine animals than any other species, yet we make impressionable films and TV shows portraying our victims as threatening killer beasts.
Perhaps it’s because humans are fascinated with large, powerful species, and we have the dual desire to witness and conquer them. Sharks are not the only animals we subject to our excessive butchery. African elephants, the largest terrestrial animals, are facing extinction due to relentless poaching for ivory. Tigers have also experienced a frightening plummet in their numbers due to poaching. About 100 years ago, there were 100,000 tigers, and now there are only about 3,200 of them left.
Our intelligence and resourcefulness have given us dominance on Earth, but, when physically compared to a majestic tiger or an intimidating shark, we appear small and innocuous. Even the sight of a shark’s fin piercing the water provokes horror. Perhaps by taking this scary fin and turning it into an expensive bowl of soup, we can compensate for what we lack. This compensation also comes in the form of ivory-laden jewelry and trinkets, a head on the wall, or a tiger-striped rug. It’s reminiscent of those CSI and Law and Order episodes in which they rush to catch a serial killer who takes a unique trophy from his/her victim. Sadly, it’s entirely plausible that these animals could take the fate of the Dodo and Passenger Pigeon.
Meanwhile, the media continues to portray sharks as deadly for the sake of entertainment. Even Reader’s Digest and the Discovery Channel are misrepresenting sharks: the latter is airing fake documentaries like Monster Hammerhead and Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives that portray fictitious, vengeful sharks. Shark Week producers even lied to scientists to get their commentaries. Dramatization is a part of entertainment, but what we’re really doing is attributing our own violent tendencies to these creatures.
This mass psychological projection also expresses itself in alien movies. Most alien films depict beings from other worlds as threatening and wanting to take over our planet (e.g. Aliens, Independence Day, The X-Files, etc). E.T. is the minority. Maybe it’s because this is what humans would do if they could. Subjugating other living things to our will, whether they be humans or other animals, is a consistent theme in the history of Homo Sapiens. If a species more intelligent than us were to make a documentary about us, it could be entitled, “Homo Sapien Week,” or more accurately, “Homo Sapien Century,” because in the last century, our expanding, industrialized way of life has been at the expense of wildlife everywhere.
It’s laudable that Peter Benchley realized the impact of his stories and became a conservationist later in life. Unfortunately, his latter message has yet to collectively catch on as successfully as his work as a novel writer. If we continue to live in a fictitious reality obsessed with hunting harmless animals, their existence will be as blank as the screens upon which we have projected our own behavior.