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Once and Future Orca: Bringing the 'Jaws' Boat Back to Life

Once, there was a famous shark, and a boat that inspired one of the most famous movie lines of all time. The Orca, the fishing boat from Jaws, is long gone, but an effort is underway to bring the vessel back to life.

Perhaps few remember the original Orca — and its sinkable stunt double, the Orca II — as well as Edgartown Harbormaster Charlie Blair. In the summer of 1974, while still in his 20s, he got a gig that gave him up-close access to the making of Jaws.

“The sinkable Orca was ... one of the greatest props ever, where you could actually sink it, pump air into it, refloat it, snap on a new transom,” he said.

Blair was in charge of the small boats shuttling the cast and crew to different locations. Every morning, he’d pick up Robert Shaw, who played the shark hunter Quint. In between trips, he’d watch Shaw’s body double get eaten by the shark more than once, break for lunch, and then watch him get eaten again.

“The Orca II went up and down a lot,” he said, “like I would say maybe 15 or 20 takes to get the shots.”

The Orca II was a special-effects version of the fishing boat used in the movie.

Now, fans come from all over to visit places on the Vineyard where Jaws was filmed, but neither of the Orcas are still in existence.

Enter David Bigelow. As a child, he was an extra in the Alex Kintner attack scene — the one with the boy on the yellow raft.

Now a film editor and colorist, Bigelow launched an independent project to develop a television series about the making of Jaws.

For that, he needed a boat — the right boat.

The original Orca was a Nova Scotia-style fishing vessel. Bigleow made a contact on Martha’s Vineyard with Chris Crawford, who converted that vessel into one that would work for Jaws.

With help from social media, they found an ad for a boat on the North Shore of Massachusetts that fit the bill, and they brought it over to the Vineyard.

When the pandemic put production of the television series on hold, he came up with a new idea to focus on the replica boat, which he calls the Orca III.

“I decided that if this boat was going to have a future — and not knowing what COVID was going to allow to happen with the larger television project — I thought that maybe it would be good to find another purpose for it, and something that would be useful,” he said.

It started as a for-profit venture with a twist — part tourist excursion boat for Jaws fans, part research vessel. Plus, he was planning to offer some educational trips free of charge for Vineyard children.

Bigelow embarked on a crowdfunding campaign with high hopes to raise $150,000 over the summer, but he raised just $10,000.

Needless to say, that prompted some rethinking.

“Having seen what happens with that kind of a process, we realized that most likely the best route is to go with a nonprofit approach,” he said.

He said he’s considering different alternatives, including running the boat as a nonprofit that blends Jaws-themed trips, education, and research. That, he said, is a natural fit because many fans of the movie are also interested in shark conservation.

The project is getting support from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. The group announced in August that it would work with Bigelow’s team to conduct shark research and educational programs aboard the Orca III.

Education director Marianne Long said the partnership gives the conservancy something it was looking for: a dedicated vessel on the islands for white shark education programs.

“We actually have worked with some of the elementary schools over on Martha's Vineyard,” she said, “and we have really wanted to work with the islands ... not just Martha’s Vineyard, but Nantucket as well.”

She said state shark biologist Greg Skomal, who works closely with the conservancy, will lead some research trips aboard the vessel as well.

Meanwhile, Bigelow hopes to start the restoration this winter, if possible.

“My mission wasn't to try and bring back the Orca for the sake of, you know, returning it to the Earth after having lost it. But it certainly has kind of transformed into that,” he said.

Over at Edgartown Harbor, Charlie Blair said he thinks a recreated Orca would be very popular.

“That would be a tourist attraction for sure,” he said. “Tourists are crazy about the movie still.”

Until this year, Jaws still played regularly in a Vineyard theater every summer.

No doubt it will again — and maybe with a certain fishing craft docked nearby.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.