In nautical circles, building a boat that proceeds to sink an astonishing 24 times would be considered a disaster. For the purposes of the crew tasked with filming 1975’s shark thriller Jaws, it meant they had done their job.
In an era before computer effects, director Steven Spielberg and production designer Joe Alves wanted their adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel—about a shark that terrorizes the tourist hub of Amity Island—to feel authentic. That meant shooting on location at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where they spent five agonizing months putting actors and several malfunctioning mechanical sharks in the water. Often, those scenes would be centered around the Orca, the fictitious shark-hunting boat manned by salty seaman Quint (Robert Shaw). For shots where the 42-foot Orca was assaulted by the atypically aggressive shark, Alves and his team substituted the functioning boat for the Orca II, a near-exact duplicate that had no motor but could sink on command. It’s the Orca II that takes up most of the screen time during the film’s climactic scene, when the shark decides to jump on the stern of the boat to take a bite out of both the vessel and Quint.
But the shark was not the only threat to the Orca II. After being decommissioned and put out of movie service, the replica boat would spend the next several decades being ransacked by Jaws fans and memorabilia collectors despite being located on private land. Frustrated and fed up, its owners would take a chainsaw to its fiberglass hull, leaving little more than a relic that was later visited by an archeologist fascinated with its status as a “fake” artifact.
In being looted by trespassers and ravaged by the sea, had the Orca IItransformed into something other than a movie prop? Had it become a cultural touchstone worthy of closer examination, or had the film’s popularity exaggerated its significance? And after nearly 45 years, would there be anything left of the Orca II to even examine?
From the beginning, the Orca II may have been the only element of Jaws that worked as expected. The Universal film, which initially had a modest budget of $3.5 million, was directed by Spielberg, who had impressed executives with his television work and a 1974 feature, The Sugarland Express. Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb rewrote Peter Benchley’s script, preserving only the bare bones of the story: A shark arrives during tourist season on Amity Island, throwing the town into an uproar. Chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) recruits a marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and ornery old seaman Quint (Shaw) to protect their shores from the marine terror. Quint’s boat, the Orca, would be their maritime base of operations.
Alves tells Mental Floss that the need for a second stunt boat was obvious from the beginning. “I did 250 storyboards,” he says. “We knew the boat had to sink, and there was no way of sinking the real Orca and bringing it back.” Read more: