The Real-Life Marine Biologist Who Helped Inspire ‘Jaws’

Dr. Donald “Reef” Nelson was part of the inspiration for Matt Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss’s character in the iconic 1975 summer blockbuster.
A tiger shark in action.
A tiger shark in action. / Ken Kiefer 2, Image Source, Getty Images

In 1975, Jaws changed several things forever: It created the modern-day summer blockbuster, made millions of people terrified of the ocean, and did a pretty terrible PR job for the great white shark, all things considered.

Someone less than thrilled with how Jaws led people to feel about sharks was Dr. Donald “Reef” Nelson, science advisor on both the original film and its 1978 sequel, and part of the inspiration for Richard Dreyfuss’s character, oceanographer and double-denim enthusiast Matt Hooper.

When Nelson had his first encounter with a shark back in 1959, scientists knew very little about their behavior. They’d looked at dead ones and spied live ones from afar, but firsthand encounters tended to be brief and often slightly more frenzied than the conditions science tends to favor. 

Nelson had finished a degree in biology at Rutgers University in 1958 and subsequently moved to Florida to—among other things—join the awesomely-named spear-fishing team, the Glug Glugs. He had an epiphany after spearing a grunt, a small but surprisingly loud fish, which reacted to being speared by making a lot of noise. A tiger shark immediately appeared, which Nelson then also proceeded to spear.

But he took more home with him than just the fish and shark: He also had an idea. Were sharks attracted to sound? Nobody had investigated that before, so along with his research partner Samuel “Sonny” Gruber, he looked into it. The pair recorded fake sounds of struggling fish like his screaming grunt and played them underwater from an ultrasonic speaker that had been developed by the Navy. Those low-frequency vibrations drew in an astonishing 22 sharks, and the pair published their findings in Science in 1963 while still grad students.

Diving Deeper

In the years leading up to Nelson’s research, there had been several high-profile incidents in which the U.S. Navy had suffered huge casualties thanks to sharks. The story of the USS Indianapolis that Quint (Robert Shaw) famously tells in the original Jaws was based on a real event, and several similar incidents had occurred in the Pacific, as well as the South Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

What Nelson and Gruber had uncovered during their research would help to save lives. They found that the same kind of sounds made by an injured, thrashing fish can be made by swimmers, something that can work out pretty sub-optimally for those swimmers. By 1965, Nelson was in California, working as a biology professor at Cal State Long Beach and trying to develop ways to repel sharks (including via a cattle-like prod that was intended to stun one if it drew too close), although none of them worked out. Perhaps coincidentally, Adam West’s Batman had a can of shark repellent in 1966’s Batman: The Movie, which was shot in California.  

Dr. Donald Nelson with the SOS II Shark Observation Submersible circa 1978.
Nelson with the SOS II Shark Observation Submersible circa 1978. / Courtesy of the Shark Lab / Cal State Long Beach

More interesting than repelling sharks, though, was getting as close to them as possible. For a while, Nelson did this in the most absurdly badass way possible, by free-diving up to 60 feet and chasing reef sharks until they got angry, something known as the Kamikaze technique. By doing this, he observed reef sharks’ “agonistic display,” meaning the behavior they performed when under threat. 

Around this time in the early 1970s, a young Steven Spielberg made a visit to the Shark Lab at Cal State, which Nelson had founded in 1966. Nelson’s lifelong habit of drawing on napkins and scraps of paper meant his office was a messy, shark-filled dream, especially for a filmmaker. This wasn’t a side of scientists that viewers were used to seeing, but it worked—Spielberg made photocopies of all the maps, scribbled napkin notes, and photos he saw and his team ultimately recreated everything for Hooper’s office in Jaws.

“An Ultimate Marine Biologist”

Although Nelson was involved with the making of Jaws and Jaws 2, he didn’t let Hollywood go to his head. Even after Jaws, he was still using the Kamikaze technique, and he only retired it in 1976 after a close call with a very combative shark.

He swiftly invented a ​​one-person, fiberglass submarine known as the SOS, or Shark Observation Submersible, and got right back to studying sharks up-close in their underwater environment. He even took video footage, and along with his team, eventually developed methods for tracking sharks using ultrasonic transmitters. This kind of acoustic transmitter technology served as a precursor to the technologically advanced tracking methods used today.

In the process, he learned so, so much about sharks. His team was the second in the world to put a transmitter on a shark in the wild, which opened up a whole new world of discovery. Everyone had assumed they were solitary, mindless killing machines, but Nelson and other scientists at the Shark Lab learned that they were in fact much more social than suspected, far less aggressive (except when threatened), and some species had complex, mutually beneficial relationships with other ocean-dwellers. There was vastly more to them than just being the sharp-toothed murderers-in-waiting depicted in those films.

Unfortunately, post-Jaws, there were a great many people who simply didn’t want to know. 

Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, and Roy Scheider on the set of "Jaws" (1975).
Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, and Roy Scheider on the set of "Jaws" (1975). / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

Both Spielberg and Peter Benchley, co-screenwriter on Jaws and author of the original novel, expressed regret over rendering the public so terrified of sharks, as well as disappointment in the shark killings that followed. In 1978, Nelson himself had endorsed a publicity poster accompanying Jaws 2 that scared the crap out of a lot of people, as it was claimed that the “seas off our shores are aprowl with many killers” and that sharks were capable of attacking in freshwater and causing boats to sink, so it was essential for audience-goers to “know their enemy.”

But by the time Nelson died in 1997, humanity had a far more detailed knowledge of the world of sharks—knowledge used to keep people safe from them, but also to protect them from people. With all the video footage of sharks that he had captured with his team, Nelson was able to make over 20 documentaries between 1968 and 1994, most of which were shown in school classrooms or aired on TV. A glowing memorial published in 2001 by the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes [PDF] praised Nelson as “an ultimate marine biologist.”

Over the course of his career, which had spanned more than three decades, Nelson influenced multiple generations of scientists to follow in his (wet) footsteps and explore the worlds of these fascinating creatures. Nelson also produced nearly 50 papers about sharks, which means if you’re planning on reading his output ... you’re gonna need a bigger shelf.

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