Loose Ends 6/21: Wendy Benchley dives into environmental activism

Wendy & Peter Benchley prepare to take a dive in the early 1970’s.

By Pam Hersh

Gov. Phil Murphy on June 10 announced the inductees for the incoming class of the New Jersey Hall of Fame – a who’s who of some of the Garden State’s best and brightest.

“Game of Thrones” groupies were buzzing about inductee George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, on which the HBO television show was based.

Even with eight seasons of chaos and killing and random coffee cups left on the set, “Game of Thrones,” in my opinion, loses the crown signifying transformative global impact to a different book – “Jaws.” It was written in 1974 by another 2019 NJ Hall of Fame inductee, Peter Benchley, a longtime Princeton resident who died in February 2006. 

The remarkable quality of “Jaws” and the subsequent film, whose screenplay was co-written by Benchley, was and is its sustainability as a work of art that is entertainment as well as a call to action. It not only got people jumping out of their seats in terror, but also got and continues to get people jumping out of their couch potato positions to fight for ocean conservation and other environmental causes. And that is directly due to the actions of the author and his wife, Wendy Benchley, a former three-term Princeton Borough councilwoman.

“I’m thrilled that Peter was elected to the NJ Hall of Fame,” Wendy said. “The excitement of ‘Jaws’ frightened some people, and it enlightened and stimulated others to investigate and research sharks. Peter was one of those who led the way for 30 years on ocean and shark conservation issues through speeches and articles for National Geographic and other magazines.

“We loved living in New Jersey,” she continued, “and I think Peter would agree with me that it would be wonderful if the award brings more attention to all the superb Garden State groups that work on ocean and environmental issues.”

Wendy, who now is living in Washington, D.C., makes frequent trips to New Jersey to pursue her environmental advocacy and to reconnect with her friends.

“Peter always was fascinated by sharks,” Wendy added. “When he was growing up, he would spend his summers on Nantucket Island, where he sometimes would see the black dorsal fins of sharks slicing through the surface of the sea. He believed that young people generally were fascinated by sharks, dinosaurs and pirates. He focused on sharks…. But he did regret later in life writing about the sharks in a way that led to excessive fear and culls of an important predator in ocean ecosystems. That inspired his becoming an outspoken advocate for marine conservation.”

Although the world is familiar with the work Peter and Wendy Benchley did on behalf of ocean conservation before he died, I was unaware of how Wendy, since Peter’s death 13 years ago, has continued to pursue with passion and energy the work as an ocean environmentalist.  

“I always had an intense commitment to environmental issues – and Peter’s interest in sharks, and the subsequent popularity of the book and film, became the perfect vessel for global environmental activism,” said Wendy, who in the 1970’s was the co-founder and trustee of the New Jersey Environmental Federation.

Most Princetonians remember Wendy, who was elected to council in 2000, as a powerful and empathetic voice on local issues, such as downtown redevelopment, affordable housing, smart growth and, of course, vehicular traffic and parking. 

Outside of Princeton’s borders, Wendy is renowned for being a global voice for protecting sharks and safeguarding the seas. As a scuba diver for more than 40 years, she said she has witnessed dramatic changes to the ocean’s wildlife and its inhabitants. This motivated her vigorous efforts to help shape smarter, stronger environmental and marine policies with government officials, non-governmental organizations and other civic leaders.

“I have to admit that I was a reluctant scuba diver. Somewhat claustrophobic, I never relished the idea of diving. But Peter’s passion spurred me on to confront my fears and just dive in. I got hooked on the dive trips as I saw what was happening to the ocean,” she said.

These dives threw her environmental advocacy into high gear, and she has no intention of shifting into a lower gear – as indicated by her overwhelming number of achievements now and in the past. 

Wendy is actively engaged in the marine policy community and supports many of the world’s leading ocean and environmental philanthropies. As president of the Board of Shark Savers, she was instrumental in merging the organization into WildAid. She plays a prominent leadership role and is actively involved as a board member in WildAid’s highly effective and widely respected global work that reduces the demand for illegal wildlife products, including ivory, rhino horn and shark fin.

She cofounded the prestigious “Peter Benchley Ocean Awards,” an annual award honoring her late husband’s legacy, in order to shine a light on the exceptional conservation work being done by marine scientists, researchers, explorers and policymakers both in the United States and internationally.

The Benchley Awards recognized 83 winners for excellence and achievement over the course of a decade and are now retired. The “Peter Benchley Ocean Awards” (now retired) were founded on the idea that individuals across every field of marine discipline need to be acknowledged and honored for their doing outstanding work — providing solutions to the challenges faced by our ocean, coastlines and wildlife.

In 2014, Wendy was the recipient of the International SeaKeepers Lifetime Achievement Award, which is given annually to an individual or an organization that has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to ocean conservation. She was inducted into the Women’s Diving Hall of Fame in 2015, she received the 2017 Pegasus Foundation Wings Award for excellence in animal and habitat protection, and in 2019, she received the Rob Stewart Foundation Lifetime Achievement for Ocean Conservation Award. She also is a board member of Blue Frontier, a grassroots group that builds the solution-oriented citizen engagement needed to protect our ocean, coasts and the communities, both human and wildlife, that depend on them.

A few years ago, Wendy married business entrepreneur John Jeppson, who enthusiastically and with much admiration, supports his wife’s environmental advocacy efforts. They met one another, not during an ocean dive, but rather a rafting trip on the Yampa River in Colorado. A few months ago, Wendy and John hosted a get together at a local Princeton restaurant in order to reconnect with Wendy’s “beloved” Princeton friends and political colleagues.

At that time, I asked John whether he minded Wendy soaking up all the attention because of her work on conservation. “I can’t think of a better reason for getting attention. I just hope that more and more people become aware of her message and join her in the campaign….” he said.

The Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which will take place on Sunday, Oct. 27, may go a long way towards making that hope a reality.

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