Pioneering diver Valerie Taylor helped film Jaws, then spent her life trying to save sharks

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Pioneering diver Valerie Taylor helped film Jaws, then spent her life trying to save sharks

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.

Valerie Taylor
Valerie Taylor has spent a lifetime underwater, and has no plans to stop any time soon.(ABC News)

‘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).

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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.

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