Valerie Taylor has spent decades trying to protect the shark population and their natural habitat — the oceans. Now, she fears it’s too late.
“What I think, or better still know, will never happen,” said the diver, shark conservationist, JAWS camera operator and star of Disney+’s new Playing With Sharks documentary. “We need to leave the ocean and its inhabitants alone for at least 20 years.”
But Taylor is not optimistic about the chances of her wish coming true.
“The problem is that all marine animals are free for the taking. A fisherman does not have to own the land, plant a crop or fertilise his paddocks of grass for cattle so he can harvest the rewards of his hard work years later. A fisherman simply harvests. He puts nothing back. He will harvest until there is nothing left,” she told MovieMaker.
The conservationist warns that the state of the oceans is bad news for everyone on earth, even if you never eat fish or swim in the Atlantic.
“Simply, when the oceans die — and they will — so will all life on the planet, including our own,” she said. “We humans with our pollution, clearing of forests, and over fishing will reap a disaster of our own making. I will not be here to see it, but my great nephews will. Yes, there are good people who recognise the coming disaster, but you can’t beat the greed, stupidity and apathy that seems to have taken over the world.”
Taylor’s love of preserving marine life began after she and her late husband, Ron Taylor, gave up competitive spearfishing in favor of filming and photographing marine life. From there, they began their lifelong love affair with protecting sharks and other sea creatures. One of her crowning achievements was having the Grey Nurse Shark protected by law in 1973.
Today, Valerie Taylor is 85. She still dives.
“I don’t get scared when in the water with sharks,” she says. “Strong currents I can’t swim against scare me more… I always explain that if [people] are really very afraid, there are plenty of places to swim where there are no sharks. We make the decision to go into the ocean. The ocean is their home — we are the intruders.”
Back in 1975, Taylor and her husband Ron shot the live shark underwater sequences in the 1975 classic film JAWS, forever cementing them into cinematic history.
“What I truly regretted was that after seeing the film so many people believed JAWS was a real shark. The human race has always had a baddie, a witch, the devil, an evil spirit,” she said. “It seemed to Ron and myself that the shark became the baddie. Ron always asked why the shark —why not King Kong on the Empire State Building?”
But despite the bad press for sharks that resulted from JAWS, Taylor says she wouldn’t change a thing.
“It was a fictitious story about a fictitious shark. It was never presented as based on fact. That so many people believed it astounded us,” she said.
She remembers filming the movie fondly.
“My best memory about working on JAWS was when Universal took us to Martha’s Vineyard to meet all the people who were working on the film,” she said. “We became friendly with Roy Schneider. We would sit on the beach chatting. Roy was very interested in the underwater world.”
Playing With Sharks highlights the decades of conservation work and shark cinematography that the Taylors were able to capture through countless underwater dives. One of the most beautiful experiences Valerie had, which the documentary shows, was when she swam amongst sharks feeding on the carcass of a dead whale. In order to gain their trust and not be treated as prey herself, she and her team discovered that by approaching the sharks head-on and bumping them on their noses, she could assert herself as just another sea creature coming to feed on the whale.
“That was just a wonderful experience. We went back in time into a world that hadn’t changed in millions of years. I felt very privileged. I was very privileged,” Taylor said.
But then she remembered that sadly, those sharks and hundreds of thousands of others have been hunted to the brink of extinction.
“All those sharks are now gone, their fins cut off for a soup popular in China. No one will ever be able to have that experience again,” she said. “I would do it again tomorrow if I could.”
Playing With Sharks is now streaming on Disney+. Main Image: Valerie Taylor pictured in Playing With Sharks.