“Shark!” Separating Fact From Fiction

Great White Shark painting by Richard Ellis.
Great White Shark painting by Richard Ellis.

By Annette Hinkle

Forty years ago this month, there was only one movie that people were talking about — Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” which forever set the standard for summer blockbusters and single-handedly changed our relationship with the ocean.

Based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel, the film was shot on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. But much of the real story of “Jaws” can be traced to the East End —and the late Frank Mundus, a Montauk charter captain and shark fisherman who reportedly caught a 4,500 pound great white shark off Montauk in 1964 and was said to be Mr. Benchley’s inspiration for the character of Quint.

“Jaws” may have thrilled millions of theatergoers in the summer of ‘75, but it did little to bolster the reputation of sharks around the world. In the years that followed, sharks became the animal that people “loved to hate” and their numbers declined sharply as shark hunters targeted them for death, just as the vengeful great white in the film hunted humans with a single-minded purpose.

But if “Jaws” brought sharks into the American consciousness in a bad way, it also raised awareness about them in a positive way. Curiosity about the animals inspired generations of scientists and we know more about sharks and their behavior than ever before. Later in life, Mr. Benchley even expressed regret at the way in which his portrayal of great whites led to their slaughter.

Now, the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum is setting out to do its part to improve reputations with “Shark! The Misunderstood Fish,” an exhibit focusing on both art and science which opens with a series of events this weekend. On view is shark-themed artwork by some of the best-known artists on the East End (as well as a set of “Jaws” story boards by Joe Alves who designed three mechanical sharks for the film) and displays about the biology and behavior of the animals.

Grey Nurse Shark by Richard Ellis
Grey Nurse Shark by Richard Ellis

When it comes to merging the art and science of sharks, perhaps no one knows more than Richard Ellis, a renowned marine biologist, artist and author whose paintings and illustrations of sharks and other fish are included in the Whaling Museum show. Mr. Ellis was responsible for the design and installation of the 94-foot long blue whale that hangs in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life in New York City. He is also the author of some two dozen books about everything from the giant squid to predators of the prehistoric seas and this Sunday, he will be at the Whaling Museum in Sag Harbor to offer a lecture in conjunction with the exhibit.

Mr. Ellis’s “The Book of Sharks” which came out in the mid-70s was in many ways an answer to “Jaws,” and in it, Mr. Ellis offers images of sharks in the wild as few people had ever seen them.

But it wasn’t easy. He notes in the early days, illustrating or painting any sea creature meant seeing it only after it had left the water.

“I tried to find reference material for things that lived in the ocean,” explains Mr. Ellis. “Most things pulled out of it are dead. They lose the vitality I wanted to communicate in paintings or drawings.”

For that reason, in creating his depictions of sharks in the wild, Mr. Ellis came to rely on imagery shot by underwater photography pioneers like Australians Ron and Valerie Taylor. Mr. Ellis eventually took up scuba diving and jumped into the water himself where he saw great whites in the their natural habitat off Patagonia and Australia.

“Ron and Valerie Taylor were naturalists and filmmakers and their career depended on doing what appeared to be life threatening,” he explains. “A lot of us, me included, went in the cage and watched sharks swim by. Then Valerie went out of the cage and nothing happened.”

“They’re not these committed man eaters people think they are,” he adds. “‘Jaws’ created a hysteria about sharks and people assumed they would come up and eat you.”

"Jaws" storyboard by production designer Joe Alves.
“Jaws” storyboard by production designer Joe Alves.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Ellis to develop a reputation for his shark imagery and one day, he received a call from the man who started the whole frenzy.

“The phone rang, and the voice said, ‘Hello, my name is Peter Benchley, I understand you’re painting pictures of sharks,’” recalls Mr. Ellis. “I said, ‘Yes.’ Ultimately, we got together and he bought a couple of my paintings.”

Though it seems an unlikely alliance, Mr. Ellis and Mr. Benchley eventually became close friends.

“At one point when I asked him why he had turned sharks into horrible man eaters, he said “Hey man, this is fiction. I get to make stuff up,’” recalls Mr. Ellis.

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and in the mid 1970s, Mr. Benchley and Mr. Ellis went shark fishing out of Montauk with the legendary Frank Mundus. The trip was arranged by ABC’s American Sportsman program and while they didn’t catch any great whites that day, they did pull in a couple of blue sharks and a swordfish.

“I remember Mundus. He was an enormous blowhard and he’d march up and down the deck lecturing about sharks,” says Mr. Ellis. “His assumptions, which everyone assumed were correct because no one knew, were that sharks were man-eaters jumping in the boat and biting your legs off.”

Of course, we all know better now and though there have been a series of shark bites in recent weeks along the North Carolina coast, most scientists chalk it up to the presence of bait in nearby waters, as well as the warming water temperatures and increased salinity, rather than some shark revenge scenario.

Which brings up an interesting point. When considering how “Jaws’ captured the public’s imagination, Mr. Ellis points to another sea-themed novel of man vs. beast which has garnered some attention — “Moby Dick,” where instead of the great white being pursued by Quint, it’s the white whale being chased by Ahab.

“There is more similarity between Moby Dick and Jaws than you might imagine,” says Mr. Ellis. “Both authors were experienced fishermen, Melville with whales, Benchley with shark fishing. What they did was take facts as they knew them and, looking at the size of the animals, both with big teeth, asked the question, ‘I wonder what would happen if people fell in the water.’”

Fortunately for sharks, the tide has turned in the last 40 years and we now know that “nothing” is more often than not the answer to that question. And that’s great news for the beleaguered sharks.

Peter Benchley, Richard Ellis and Frank Mundus on a charter trip out of Montauk, 1975.
Peter Benchley, Richard Ellis and Frank Mundus on a charter trip out of Montauk, 1975.

“People do know that killing animals for fun and sport is no longer a good idea,” says Mr. Ellis. “People who do it are reviled and not heroes.”

“But they’re my favorite animal,” he adds. “So beautifully designed and sleek.”

“Shark! The Misunderstood Fish” opens with a reception at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum (200 Main Street, Sag Harbor) this Friday, July 10 at 6 p.m. with Richard Ellis and a 40th anniversary screening of “Jaws” on the lawn. Artists include Mr. Ellis, April Gornik, Dan Rizzie, Donald Sultan, Dalton Portella, Joe Alves, Savio Mizzi, David Pintauro, Annie Sessler, Anthony Ackril, James Katsipis and jewelry by FIN. “Jaws” begins at 8 p.m. and wine, beer, light food and refreshments will be served. Suggested contribution is $20.

On Saturday, July 11, 2015 from 6 to 10 p.m., the museum hosts a family picnic with fried chicken, beer, wine, coffee, ice cream, children’s activities and a screening of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” beginning at 8 p.m. Tickets are $50 for adults, $25 for children.

On Sunday, July 12, 2015 from 10 a.m. to noon, Richard Ellis offers a lecture and multi-media presentation entitled “The Adventures of a Shark Painter” which includes fishing and conservation expeditions with Peter Benchley, Frank Mundus, Rodney Fox and others. Mr. Ellis will be signing books and prints of his artwork which will be available for sale. Admission is free but reservations are encouraged.

The exhibit remains on view through July 29. To purchase tickets for all these events, visit www.sagharborwhalingmuseum.org or call the museum at (631) 725-0770.