Valerie Taylor’s career began on the business side of a harpoon. She was the top female spearfisher in Australia in the ’60s when a moment of clarity transformed her from hunter to protector. Now in her mid-80s, Taylor was a pioneer in underwater photography. Along with her husband, cinematographer Ron Taylor, she captured the first-ever underwater footage of a great white shark, i.e. the largest known predatory fish. This footage helped inspire the 1975 thriller Jaws, which Taylor also helped to film.
Entertainment value aside, her work helped ignite the shark-conservation movement, and Taylor only regrets that movies like Jaws sparked more fear than awe in viewers. “It’s a fictious story about a fictious shark,” she says. “Most sharks are totally harmless.” Her advocacy for animals like the grey nurse shark helped get them legally protected around the world.
Taylor received the prestigious Jackson Wild Legacy Award at this year’s Jackson Wild Summit in Jackson, Wyo., and was interviewed onsite by Australian producer-director Bettina Dalton, whose documentary, Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, explores the Shark Queen’s impact and legacy. Their discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Bettina Dalton: How did your journey toward conservation begin?
Valerie Taylor: I wasn't very well educated. My parents were poor. When I was 12, I caught polio and missed a lot of school. When I turned 15, my mother said, "You’re leaving school tomorrow and you’re getting a job—and you can do anything you want as long as you make a living." I walked out the front door and I thought, "I can do what I like." And so I did. And that ended up being a gift.
I tried modeling. I was good at it, but it was boring. I tried to be an actress on the stage, but after nine months of going over the same thing, I grew tired of it. But all that time, I was spearing fish for my father, who had lead poisoning and couldn't eat meat.
Bettina Dalton: And that was the beginning of your spearfishing career.
Valerie Taylor: Spearfishing was something I could do well. I was Australian women’s champion three years running. It was there I met Ron Taylor, my future husband. He was the men’s Australian champion and world champion at spearfishing. We had just won our titles once again in the Australian Spearfishing Championships and we were looking at all these beautiful fish—dead. Hundreds and hundreds of them, lying dead on the beach. And Ron asked, "What have we done?" And then he said, "I'm never going to do this again." I said, "I don't want to do it either." And we walked away from the whole camp, the whole thing at the top of our game. And we never did a spearfishing competition again.
Bettina Dalton: Could you tell us the tawny shark story? I love that story of the tawny, when you were doing the experiments with shark repellent and the tawny wouldn’t leave you alone.
Valerie Taylor: Ron and I were working with the US Navy on shark repellents in the Coral Sea, and they only wanted to test their repellents against potentially dangerous sharks. And, I mean, there are over 200 species of sharks, but only about six species are potentially dangerous.
So we set up a feeding place in an area we knew, on a very isolated reef. The sharks swam in, and the testing was going very well. And along came a very big nurse shark, who started to eat the bait we were using. Ron signaled me to get her away. Nobody wanted to test on a harmless nurse shark, or tawny, as people call them. So I got a fish on a rope and dangled it in front of the tawny and then quickly swam away. And she followed me, of course. And I swam until I had about half a tank of air left. I buried the fish under some dead coral and swam back toward where we were working. I looked beside me, and the tawny was right there with me.
Again, I tried to get rid of that shark. I got lots of fish and swam off and she followed me. I pushed the fish under a ledge and threw a bit of dead coral in front of the hole to block it off, and I swam back to Ron. Ten minutes later the shark appeared again. Ron gave me another frantic signal because she was eating all the bait. This tawny had no fear. So off we went again, and again I took the fish and pushed it deep into a coral cave and I dragged more dead coral and blocked it off again. And then I watched her. She pulled all the coral away, pushed her head into the hole, and sucked the fish out. Got all my bait. So I thought, this time I'll try to slow her down. So I hung onto her dorsal fin. She swam back to where she knew there was food, and she took me along. Seems I'd made a friend.
Over the years, we went back to that spot for our own work. It was a very good area to work. Nobody lived there, nobody went there, as it was totally isolated. And I called the tawny Nursie. Nursie was always there.
Bettina Dalton: What were you expecting when you went into the ocean at night for the first time?
Valerie Taylor: I didn't know what to expect. The first time was terrible, however, because Ron had made his own light, and to power the light he used the kind of batteries you use in a motorbike, which are very heavy. We were in the Coral Sea on a drop-off, and I jumped into the water holding the light and found myself hurtling into the depths at great speed. I grabbed a hold of a gorgonian coral and thought, "I’ve got to get out of this." I wanted to drop the light. Then the light went out, so it was pitch black and I had this huge weight in my hand. I’m thinking, if I drop it, Ron will be so upset. So I climbed up the reef, found the boat’s anchor, climbed up the anchor chain, and started yelling.
Ron realized that wouldn't do, so he decided we would have a generator in our little boat. And we would power the lights from a generator, with longline floats on it attached to the camera. And we did that for years and years. The generator worked very well, but we had to keep it dry and so we had to have someone sitting there all the time to take care of it, so it was a bit of a nuisance all around. And then Rob started building his own self-contained underwater lights.
Bettina Dalton: You are so innovative, so pioneering. It's not surprising that your white shark footage is, I believe, the first underwater footage of the great white?
Valerie Taylor: Absolutely. No one else had ever even thought of filming a great white underwater. I might add, we eventually got cages. It made it much easier than hanging over the side of the boat.
Bettina Dalton: You caught international attention with the shark documentary, Blue Water, White Death. It’s an extraordinary documentary, filmed out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That moment when you step out of a cage, and there are one hundred oceanic whitetips around you…
Valerie Taylor: The most dangerous shark in the world.
Bettina Dalton: What were you thinking?
Valerie Taylor: I thought I was going to be killed. But what a way to go. I loved adventure. I loved excitement. And there we were with all these Americans on this job, living on a whale catcher for six months, making friends that we’d keep for the rest of our lives. All sorts of hardship, yes. But what an adventure.
Bettina Dalton: There were so many of us who have watched you and Ron, admired your work and been totally inspired. Among them was Jaws writer Peter Benchley, who saw Blue Water, White Death, and contacted you.
Valerie Taylor: It was actually [Jaws producers] Richard Zanuck and David Brown who contacted us. They sent us the galley proof of Jaws and asked, "Did we think it would make a good movie?" Of course, it worked for the Taylors. We said yes.
Bettina Dalton: I assume you could never have imagined the impact of such a film.
Valerie Taylor: It was supposed to be a movie about a fictitious shark. But the general public seemed to think that the mechanical shark in the film was a real shark, and they also seemed to think that real sharks behave like this. It upset us all. It upset Peter [Benchley]. It upset Universal. Universal flew Ron and me back to America and we did every talk show in the country. It took several weeks, traveling around and telling everyone that this was a fictitious story about a fictitious shark. And that you don't go to New York and expect to see King Kong on the Empire State Building. It's as fictitious as that. But it seems people the world over all really want to have a demon. And all sharks became monsters.
Bettina Dalton: How did you feel about that?
Valerie Taylor: We were astounded people could be so easily taken in by a story. We did a lot of television shows where we're patting sharks and telling stories about sharks not being so dangerous. But meanwhile, other people were killing sharks just to say, "See, I've just saved a hundred lives. I've killed a shark." There’s a shark called the grey nurse or sandbar tiger shark and it's a very sweet shark. It can't help its looks. It can't help having all those teeth. It's not its fault nature made it that way. Never hurt a person in the history of the world. But people were killing them, and killing them, and killing them.
Bettina Dalton: Through your footage, we have a window onto the Anthropocene. You’ve captured a period in our oceans where we can witness the rapid decline of marine life. And your own journey toward conservation somehow mirrors that. How did you make that decision, while the rest of the world seemed to be playing catch-up?
Valerie Taylor: I didn't know I was making a decision. I didn't know the world was playing catch-up. I’d already made friends with a few marine animals. I knew that for every animal in the ocean, there’s a similar one on land. They're like a group of dogs. There's the bully, there's the greedy one, the timid one, the shy one. I'd be swimming around and they'd be swimming around with me, just like a pet animal would on land, probably saying in fish talk, "Food. Food.” I’d get to know them and their different personalities. Some of them actually became like friends.
Bettina Dalton: You are a storyteller, and your films are very powerful. You’ve been on a journey, awakening to conservation before much of the rest of the world.
Valerie Taylor: We are killing the planet that supports us. I really think almost everybody knows this, but nobody wants to do anything really big about it. Nature gave us a beautiful planet to live on. It had everything, underwater and above. She designed it to perfection, except she made one mistake. Humans. We're destroying the planet and when it's gone none of us can replace nature. And I have incredible respect for her and her power of regeneration, but she has to be given a chance.
It's no good protesting. You've got to get the general public and the politicians on your side. You get good imagery, a good story, and you never lie—it's got to be a true story—and you take it to television. Ron would film me hugging, kissing, patting, feeding these fish. And I’d say, "Wouldn't you like your children to be able to see a fish like this? Because if it's not protected, they never will." Television will never knock back a good story with good imagery. We never wanted money—all we wanted to do was for them to show the footage. This is the way to get anything protected.
Lead image: Valerie and Ron Taylor take the temperature of a great white shark. Credit: Valerie and Ron Taylor