Valerie Taylor isn’t your average 86-year-old. Instead of living out a quiet retirement, she’s putting on a hot-pink wetsuit and petting sharks.
“Tiger sharks are great big pussycats, they’re very easygoing,” she says.
“I’ve known some pretty good tiger sharks. I know a guy who’s got a giant female [tiger shark] as a pet in the ocean. She rushes over when he goes into the water. He strokes her, I’ve stroked her. Her name’s Emma. She’s a darling. You couldn’t possibly hurt Emma, she’s too sweet.”
The spearfishing champion turned conservationist has spent much of her life challenging the public’s fear of sharks.
“In a year, more people die just driving to the beach or getting bitten by dogs [than being killed by sharks]. More people drown – by a long way.
“That’s all considered to be part of life. [But with sharks] it becomes a different thing, it’s the big monster that nobody can see in the deep, dark, evil depths.
“It’s not like that at all, in reality.”
In some ways, her decades of advocacy has been about undoing the damage wrought by Jaws, the movie that did more than anything else to spread the fear of the monster in the dark, evil depths. And it’s a film Taylor had a hand in creating.
‘Jaws did a lot of harm’
By the early 1970s, Valerie had made and appeared in plenty of underwater films, but it was the 1971 shark documentary, Blue Water, White Death, that really made her name as an ocean cinematographer.
Universal Pictures sent Valerie and her husband, Ron, the galley proofs of Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws, about a great white shark terrorising a small town on the USA’s east coast.
The novel sold more than 10 million copies and was selected as up-and-coming director Steven Spielberg’s second major film.
Before Jaws went into production in 1974, Spielberg chose Valerie and Ron to lead an expedition to Port Lincoln, South Australia, to capture footage for the nerve-wracking scene where Richard Dreyfuss’s character, Hooper, descends in a shark cage to confront the monstrous great white.
Valerie and Ron were known as the first divers to film great whites underwater without the protection of a cage. As Spielberg wanted the film shark to look huge – larger than any real creature – they filmed short men in half-sized diving cages.
As the crew were preparing to lower a diver, one shark got tangled in the ropes holding the empty cage to the boat. As the shark thrashed around, the whole contraption snapped off 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 he included it in the film and rewrote the script so that Hooper escapes from the top of the cage to safety.
Jaws became the highest-grossing movie in history at the time and was the first summer blockbuster film. But to this day, Valerie has conflicted feelings about its 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 going out on shark slaughtering trips, and swimmers were terrified of dark shapes in the water.
Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, said he would never have written the book if he had foreseen its implication for 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 shark in the ocean are potentially dangerous to humans. But that wasn’t the perception held by most audiences after seeing the film.
Valerie and her husband Ron toured the US and went on every talk show they could to spread the word 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 as far as using themselves as human bait to prove sharks were no threat. Wearing protective chain-mail suits, they covered themselves in raw fish to coax 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 rope tangled 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 kilometres from where they’d worked to save it.
Over the decades, she watched many more disappear from the ocean.
“[Jaws] was a fictitious story and a fictitious shark,” Valerie says.
“But there was nothing to be done, all you can do is try and mend the fence.”
An incredible life
Valerie’s work on Jaws was just one chapter in an incredible life that last year was the subject of the National Geographic documentary, Playing With Sharks, directed by Bettina Dalton.
Valerie was born in Australia, but grew up mostly in New Zealand, and had to relearn how to walk after she was hospitalised with polio at age 12.
She began 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 began making underwater films together.
It was a spearfishing competition in Maroochydore that changed Valerie and Ron’s opinion of the sport forever, and set them on a new path.
“We had just each won the individual title of Australia,” she says. “He won the men’s Australian title, and I won the women’s.
“And we walked out of the water with our catch and dumped them with everybody else’s on the beach to be weighed. There was an island offshore, and we [and the other hundred competitors] had taken every reef fish off it. And Ron looked at it and he said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore’. And I said, ‘I don’t want to do it either’. And we never did it again. We walked away.”
Valerie and Ron moved into environmental conservation, with one of their first campaigns focused on protecting grey nurse sharks.
Although they are docile and relatively harmless to humans, the grey nurse shark’s fearsome appearance and reputation as a man-eater led to indiscriminate killing of the species by spear and line fishers.
Today, Australia’s east coast population of grey nurse sharks is critically endangered. Valerie started writing letters in support of the species being protected, and with Ron made films about their plight.
“That was the first shark in the world to ever be protected,” she says. “I’ve just gone from one thing to the next to the next to the next.”
But her conservation work was not just concerned with saving sharks. She also led campaigns to protect other marine species, like the potato cod, and fought hard to establish marine parks and sanctuary zones.
To this day, she has only ever killed one shark during her time in spearfishing — 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, Valerie still talks passionately about conservation, and children seeing marine life with their own eyes.
She’s seen oceans deteriorate significantly since she first started diving.
Each year, as many as 273 million sharks are killed in the world’s commercial fisheries, many solely for their fins for use in shark fin soup. More than one third of all shark species and their relatives are at risk of extinction because of overfishing.
“In 1967, Ron and I scuba-dove the Great Barrier Reef from top to bottom. It took over six months, and we filmed in 35mm all the way. What we saw then doesn’t exist anymore, not like that. It’s gone.”
Valerie lost her husband Ron to leukaemia in 2012 but has continued diving and her work with ocean conservation. She says she still wants to work on more film projects in the last years of her life.
“I like to think that I’ve had enough marine animals protected to have done my little bit,” she says.
“I’ll probably do it for as long as I can, but I think my body will stop me.”
When she talks of an upcoming diving trip to Indonesia, the 86 year-old still sounds as excited as ever to put on her pink wetsuit and explore the coral reefs – free from gravity and some of the effects of age.
“I don’t walk too good, but I float OK,” she says.
“You never fly on land by yourself, but underwater you just spread your wings and go anywhere.”
This story comes from the ABC’s Fierce Girls podcast. Listen for free on the ABC listen app or search for it on your favourite podcast app.