A new Australian documentary explores the career of diver and conservationist Valerie Taylor—and touches on negative portrayals of sharks in the media. Here’s our review from Flicks’ resident diver, Travis Johnson.
Even if you don’t know her name, you’ve seen Valerie Taylor’s work. She and her late husband, Ron Taylor, captured the live shark footage used in Jaws. The 12-to-13-foot Great Whites commonly found in the wild were considerably smaller than the film’s 25-foot monster, so director Steven Spielberg sent the Taylors a half-scale shark cage and a half-scale actor to make them seem huge.
In the new documentary Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, the revered oceanographer recalls that, on seeing a wild shark for the first time, the small stuntie ruefully remarked that he should have asked for more money—and that was before the cage was destroyed by yet another shark that became entangled in its cables (yes, that footage was used in the film).
It’s just one wild incident taken from a life packed with adventure. Directed by Sally Aitken (David Stratton: A Cinematic Life), Playing with Sharks is a comprehensive look at Taylor’s career as a diver, filmmaker and conservationist, a vocation that has taken her around the world and into each and every ocean. Naturally, the underwater photography is spectacular, with jaw-dropping footage of a vast variety of aquatic life—especially sharks. Oh, so many sharks.
Which is, in fact, the crux of the film. Playing with Sharks is not just an account of the now 85-year-old Taylor’s extraordinary life, but also of the ongoing campaign to rehabilitate the shark’s reputation in the eyes of our terrestrial selves, who are all too aware that the occasional human finds themselves on the menu. Taylor herself started her underwater adventures as not just a scuba diver but a champion spearfisher, noting in the film that back in the early 1960s, the ocean so teemed with life that it seemed impossible that the amount that humans take for food and sport could not possibly make much of dent.
Moreover, sharks were seen as relentless killers, and hunting them was seen not only as a sport, but a duty.
Taylor’s attitudes were changed by a shark hunting expedition with husband Ron and Rodney Fox, the world’s most famous shark attack survivor. On seeing their dead catch, Taylor realised that she much preferred seeing them gliding through the depths than bleeding on the boat deck. She and Ron vowed to only shoot sea life with their cameras from then on, and so began a lifelong journey of exploration and education.
One thing the film does not shy away from is the guilt that many conservationists feel over their early attitudes, with Taylor, Fox, and the widow of Jaws author Peter Benchley on hand to express their regrets both about their own actions and, in the case of Benchley and Taylor, their contributions to the shark’s negative portrayal in media. Hence Taylor’s lifelong dedication to their cause.
For us as viewers, the result is jaw-dropping footage of Taylor interacting with a variety of nominally deadly sharks, among them Bull Sharks (generally thought to be extremely aggressive and territorial) and Oceanic Whitetips (allegedly responsible for more human deaths than any other species). She swims with them, is jostled by them, feeds them by hand, and, in one striking sequence, allows one to bite down on her chainmail-clad arm to prove that the beast’s legendary biting power is just that—legend.
The message is clear: sharks simply do not see humans as food. For all their ferocious reputation, they are… well, not harmless, but nowhere near the threat they are portrayed as.
But it took—and it still takes—courage to get out in the water and prove that. As Aitken’s film amply demonstrates, Taylor’s fearlessness in the face of the unknown is a matter of record. The most moving sequence sees the now-aged explorer donning her wetsuit for a dip with sharks off Fiji. Squeezing into the suit is obviously painful for her, but her tears are joyful. “I’ll be diving in a wheelchair,” she laughs. We should all be so lucky.