Legend of the Great White

I've recently been reading a slew of accounts of the Great White's taste for a thin-skinned species of coastal biped remarkable for its lack of caution when working or playing in the shark's neighborhood. This, of course, is nothing new. For centuries the Great White has been eating whalers, abalone divers, swimmers, surfers and other types who wander into its domain during the dinner hour — which is between midnight and 12 pm.

A forerunner to the Great White was even more predacious. Tagged Carcarodon Megaladon by scientists after hundreds of its 5- and 6-inch triangular teeth were found in the stratified sediment of various former ocean floors, the 60-footer had a mouth large enough to sleep two. A reconstructed jaw complete with teeth hangs menacingly over an entryway in The Museum of Natural History in New York City.

In its day, old CM ruled all the temperate seas, prowling with ponderous languor the sun-stroked shallows at the edges of continents and archipelagos. It projected such a strong specter of death that even Ahab, the most ambitious of all seafaring hunters, would have been humbled in its presence — before he was eaten.

No one knows why CM devolved into the current compact model, which at maturity generally reaches no more than 17 feet. Perhaps the process of natural selection downsized it to conform to a changing balance of predator and prey that had probably been altered by CM itself.

The making of a legend

In the mid-1970s, the Great White surged into global consciousness. It came off the pages of Peter Benchley's gripping novel, Jaws, and, a year later, leaped off the big screen in the movie directed by Steven Spielberg. The double hit of Benchley's bestseller and Spielberg's classic ruined swimming in the surf for millions.

Not since Alfred Hitchcock's landmark film Psycho — which caused countless travelers to lock the door of their motel bathrooms before taking a shower — had a work of commercial art sent such sweeping waves of terror across the social landscape. People left the beaches in droves, fearing against all statistical reason that they might be "next."

Helping to raise the fear of being next was a documentary that featured author Benchley at an eye-level meeting with the object of his creation in the cold, windswept waters off Port Lincoln in South Australia, at a place aptly called "Dangerous Reef." Appearing on ABC's American Sportsman just before the paperback version of the novel hit the stores, the offering of Benchley to a 16-foot, 3,000-pound white shark was the perfect preview to the movie.

The 60-minute adventure garnered a record rating, drawing about half the people watching television that February Sunday. They watched in fascination as the Great White, which had been "chummed up" with a horse carcass, slammed repeatedly into the cage holding Benchley. Sheathed in a black wetsuit, the author was safe enough, but when the scene played on the TV screen it was chilling.

Earlier in the production, far north on the Great Barrier Reef, another episode in the film was truly dangerous. A sea ray had been harpooned and set on the ocean floor, some 25 feet below the surface, and with Benchley in place over the bait, two tiger sharks swaggered in from the gloom. There were no cages used in this location, and as Stan Waterman filmed one of the tigers — an18 footer — as it devoured the ray like someone eating a pizza whole, Benchley edged to within inches of its broad head.

Afterward, back on deck of the support ship, Waterman explained to the writer and producer of the show, an "old friend" of Benchley's, that the tiger shark's brain is the size of a golf ball, lacking the capacity to chew sea ray and people at the same time. The writer/producer was not convinced, which is one reason why he stayed safely on board while the feeding occurred.

That was some 27 years ago, and the TV writer and Benchley apparently disagree about some of the details that led up to the production. Time bends the memory. But they recall the big stuff — the shark moments — with matching clarity.

You can read Benchley's version in his latest book on real-life shark moments that sits midway up the best-seller list.

Tight Lines, folks.