Valerie Taylor is not 86 like the average. Instead of living a quiet retirement, she dons a hot pink jumpsuit and strokes sharks.
“Tiger sharks are really big kitties, they’re very easy-going,” she says.
“I have known some very good tiger sharks. I know a guy who has a giant female [tiger shark] as a pet in the ocean. She rushes when he enters the water. He caresses her, I caressed her. Her name is Emma. She’s a darling. You can’t hurt Emma, she’s too nice.”
The spearfishing champion turned conservationist has spent much of her life defying public fear of sharks.
“In a year, more people die while driving on the beach or being bitten by dogs [than being killed by sharks]. More people are drowning – by far.
“It’s all considered part of life. [But with sharks] it becomes a different thing, it is the great monster that no one can see in the deep, dark and evil depths.
“It’s not like that at all, actually.”
In some ways, his decades of advocacy have been about undoing the damage done by Jaws, the movie that did more than anything else to spread fear of the monster in the dark and evil depths. And it’s a movie that Taylor had a hand in creating.
“Jaws has done a lot of harm”
By the early 1970s, Valerie had directed and starred in many underwater films, but it was the 1971 shark documentary Blue Water, White Death that really made her name as the director of the ocean photography.
Universal Pictures sent Valerie and her husband, Ron, the proofs of Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, about a great white shark terrorizing a small town on the east coast of the United States.
The novel sold over 10 million copies and was selected as the second major film by up-and-coming director Steven Spielberg.
Before Jaws went into production in 1974, Spielberg chose Valerie and Ron to lead an expedition to Port Lincoln, South Australia, to capture footage of the harrowing scene where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Hooper descends into a shark cage to face the monstrous great white.
Valerie and Ron were known as the first divers to film great whites underwater without the protection of a cage. Since Spielberg wanted the film’s shark to look huge – larger than any real creature – they filmed small men in half-size diving cages.
As the crew prepared to lower a diver, a shark got caught in the ropes holding the empty cage to the boat. As the shark struggled, the whole gear broke away from the boat and the shark sank with the cage and line attached (it eventually swam free).
In the original script, Hooper was to be killed by the shark in this scene, but Spielberg liked the Taylors’ dramatic footage so much that he included it in the film and rewrote the script to have Hooper escape from the top of the cage safely.
Jaws became the highest-grossing film in history at the time and was the first blockbuster film of the summer. But to this day, Valerie has conflicting feelings about her legacy.
A climate of fear
After the blockbuster exposed the world to the story of a killer shark with a taste for human flesh, people started taking shark-killing tours and swimmers were terrified of the dark shapes in the water. .
Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, said he would never have written the book if he had planned for his involvement with vulnerable shark populations. He spent the rest of his life advocating for marine conservation.
Valerie Taylor points out that only five or six of the more than 400 species of sharks in the ocean are potentially dangerous to humans. But that was not the perception of most viewers after seeing the film.
Valerie and her husband Ron toured the United States and appeared on every talk show possible to spread the message that sharks are not man eaters.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with sharks, and they’re not really as bad as people would like to think,” she says.
In 1980, Valerie and Ron went so far as to use themselves as human bait to prove that sharks were no threat. Dressed in protective chain mail, they covered themselves in raw fish to entice sharks to bite them.
On another occasion, Valerie and Ron were filmed dragging a distressed great white shark to the shallows to free it from a tangled rope at the base of its tail. They tagged the shark and released it back to sea. A year later, the tags were returned by a fisherman who caught the shark about two kilometers from where they had been working to save it.
Over the decades, she has seen many more disappear from the ocean.
“[Jaws] was a fictional story and a fictional shark,” says Valerie.
“But there was nothing to do, all you can do is try to fix the fence.”
an amazing life
Valerie’s work on Jaws was just one chapter in an incredible life that was the subject of the National Geographic documentary, Playing With Sharks, directed by Bettina Dalton last year.
Valerie was born in Australia but grew up mostly in New Zealand and had to learn to walk again after being hospitalized with polio at the age of 12.
She started diving in the 1950s before becoming a champion spearfisher – a woman in a macho blood sport. She met her husband, Ron, another spearfishing champion, and they started making underwater movies together.
It was a spearfishing competition in Maroochydore that forever changed Valerie and Ron’s opinion of the sport and set them on a new path.
“We had just each won the individual Australian title,” she said. “He won the Australian men’s title and I won the women’s title.
“And we got out of the water with our catch and threw it with all the others on the beach to be weighed. There was an island offshore, and we [and the other hundred competitors] removed all the reef fish. And Ron looked at him and he said, ‘I won’t do that again. And I said, ‘I don’t want to do it either. And we never did it again. We walked away.”
Valerie and Ron got into environmental conservation, with one of their first campaigns focusing on protecting gray nurse sharks.
Although docile and relatively harmless to humans, the gray nurse shark’s fearsome appearance and reputation as a man-eater has led to the species being indiscriminately culled by spearfishers and anglers.
Today, the population of gray nurse sharks off the east coast of Australia is critically endangered. Valerie started writing letters in favor of species protection and, with Ron, made films about their plight.
“It was the first shark in the world to be protected,” she says. “I just went from one thing to another to another.”
But his conservation work wasn’t just about saving sharks. She has also led campaigns to protect other marine species, such as potato cod, and fought to establish marine parks and sanctuary areas.
To date, she’s only killed one shark during her spearfishing stint – and it’s something she still regrets.
“I didn’t like doing it,” she says. “I don’t want to kill anything.”
Still diving at 86
Today, Valérie still speaks passionately about conservation and about children seeing marine life with their own eyes.
She has seen the oceans deteriorate dramatically since she started diving.
Every year, as many as 273 million sharks are killed in global commercial fisheries, many of them just for their fins used in shark fin soup. More than a third of all shark species and their relatives are threatened with extinction due to overfishing.
“In 1967, Ron and I dived the Great Barrier Reef from top to bottom. It took over six months, and we filmed in 35mm until the end. What we saw then no longer exists, not like that. Here we go.”
Valerie lost her husband Ron to leukemia in 2012, but continued to dive and work for ocean conservation. She says she still wants to work on more film projects in the later years of her life.
“I like to think I’ve had enough marine animals protected to have done my bit,” she says.
“I’ll probably do it for as long as I can, but I think my body will stop me.”
When talking about an upcoming diving trip to Indonesia, the 86-year-old still seems as excited to put on her pink wetsuit and explore the coral reefs – free of gravity and age effects.
“I don’t walk too well, but I float well,” she says.
“You never fly alone on land, but underwater you just spread your wings and go anywhere.”
This story comes from ABC’s Fierce Girls podcast. Listen for free on the ABC listening app or search for it on your favorite podcast app.