05/31/2011 01:54 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2011

Jaws of Life -- The Peter Benchley Ocean Awards

What do a high school student from LA, a scientist who studies the DNA of whales, the president of a Central American Nation, a former Coast Guard Commandant and a Washington Post reporter have in common? They're among the winners of this year's top ocean honors.

The fourth annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards recently took place in Washington DC, solidifying it as the only high-profile award dedicated to recognizing excellence in ocean conservation across a wide range of categories including science, policy, media, national stewardship, solutions, youth, exploration and advocacy. Or to put it another way, the Benchleys are the Academy Awards for those who act on behalf of our seas.

Named for the author of Jaws, the awards celebrate the life and legacy of Benchley who, though many people are not aware of it, spent more than 40 years writing and educating the public and expanding awareness of the importance of protecting sharks and the ocean ecosystems they are a part of. The awards, sponsored by the non-profit Blue Frontier Campaign and long-time wife, partner and marine conservationist Wendy Benchley, celebrate exceptional marine conservation efforts that lead to the protection of our oceans, our coasts and the communities that depend on them.

Past winners have included former Senator Ernest Hollings (D SC), Academy Award winning director Louie Psihoyos, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Census of Marine Life coordinator Jesse Ausubel and retired Navy Captain Don Walsh, one of only two people who has been to the deepest part of the sea. Other winners have included the late marine biologist Ram Meyers and the late New Jersey coastal activist Dery Bennett.

Each winner receives a Benchley Mantas award designed by famed marine artist and sculpture Wyland. The award commemorates a dive in the early 1980s in which Benchley and his crew were offered rides on the back of a giant Manta after one of them removed fishing line that had entangled around one of its 'horns.' This apparent gesture of 'thanks' from the giant fish inspired Benchley's book,

The first 2011 award for 'Excellence in National Stewardship of the Ocean,' was presented on Friday May 20 to President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica at the Inter-American Development Bank in D.C. Among the 250 guests there were representatives from MarViva, the regional citizens group that helped inspire their nation's new President to expand the marine protection zone around the world-famous Coco Island National Park. The 2,900 square mile 'Seamounts Marine Management Area' is the second largest protected marine area in the Eastern Tropical Pacific after the Galapagos Islands.

The remaining six awards were presented the following evening at a reception and ceremony at George Washington University in front of some 400 guests and participants in the ocean policy oriented Blue Vision Summit. The award presentations were MC'ed by National Geographic Explorer in residence, "her deepness," Dr. Sylvia Earle.

This year's winners included Dr. Steve Palumbi for science, Admiral Thad Allen (USCG ret.) for policy, Dr. Greg Stone for solutions, Juliet Eilperin for media, youth activist Rudy Sanchez and Hero of the Seas Kathy Fletcher.

Dr. Palumbi, Director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey is best known for his use of molecular genetic techniques in conservation, including the identification of mislabeled whale and dolphin products in commercial markets in Japan.

Admiral Thad Allen (USCG Ret.) has played a vital role in developing U.S. Arctic policy under President Bush, has been a strong proponent for President Obama's National Ocean Policy and has played a key role in disaster response during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and during the BP oil blowout in the Gulf.

Dr. Greg Stone of Conservation International, a top ocean scientist and explorer, helped lead the effort to create one of the world's largest marine protected areas (an area larger than California) around the Phoenix Islands in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin is one of the last U.S. newspaper reporters consistently reporting in-depth on the science, issues and challenges faced on our public seas. Her latest book isDemon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.

18-year old Rudy Sanchez co-founded and now leads the Rise Above Plastic program at his Los Angeles high school and his worked with Surfrider, Algalita Foundation and others to spread the word on plastic impacts on the ocean and practical solutions we can all be a part of to thousands of other young people around LA and the nation.

Kathy Fletcher founded People for Puget Sound in 1991 and has led this citizens organization ever since. About to retire from the position of Executive Director, she leaves behind one of the strongest and most effective regional groups working for the protection and restoration of our coasts, large estuaries and ocean. She is an outstanding seaweed (marine grassroots) leader.