The octogenarian shark swimmer

Valentina Valentini 20 July 2021

85-year-olds can swim with sharks too, as Valerie Taylor proves 

Valerie Taylor has a very Forest Gump-ian view of the ocean: “You never know what you’re going to find out there beyond the limit of your visibility.” Like Gump and his box of chocolates, Taylor, now 85 years old, holds boundless curiosity and humility for our oceans after a lifetime of swimming in them and learning about the oldest animal to still exist, the shark.

Taylor grew up on the coast of New South Wales, Australia and swimming in the ocean was part of everyday life. She began spear fishing and worked her way up in her early 20s to become one of very few women who were professional spear fishers and was named the Australian Ladies National Champion. But as she spent more time underwater—especially with the sharks, of which she only ever killed one—she had a change of heart and decided, along with her late husband and world spear fishing champion, Ron Taylor, to hang up her spear. From that point on, she would only shoot them with her camera. Thus, the Taylors became two of the first underwater photographers and cinematographers documenting sharks.

“We spent so much time underwater,” says Taylor, who still dives today. “Much more than the average person. It was our office.”

A pioneering shark conservationist, Taylor succeeded in many firsts throughout her life’s work. She was the first person to dive with sharks cageless. The first person to don a mesh suit to test the power of a shark bite. Her husband—with whom she worked in tandem on everything—was the first person in the world to film a Great White Shark swimming underwater (a feat he achieved dangling off the back of a tuna fishing boat). And together they worked on Jaws, filming all the live-action sequences with sharks, and then—because the public’s reaction to the film was so full of fear—went on countless PR tours to help correct the maligned creatures’ image.

"She was the first person to dive with sharks cageless. The first person to don a mesh suit to test the power of a shark bite"

Valerie Taylor

Valerie Taylor

Her research has become the basis for much of what we know about sharks today and she succeeded in becoming the first person to get Grey Nurse sharks protected in a specific area (the first shark species in the world to receive protected status).

Taylor swam in a chain mail suit and lured sharks in to bite it to prove they don’t have a powerful bite force but instead use a sawing action to bite their prey; she hand-fed a Great White and pet it. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do to help correct the false image that sharks are dangerous, man-eating monsters.

On July 23 Disney+ will premiere the National Geographic Documentary Film, Playing with Sharks, which details her life and she was also part of National Geographic’s Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth, both directed by Sally Aitken. Here, we talk to the legend about her adventures and how we can help to stop the 71 percent decline in the world’s shark population.

It’s been said that you were first person to say that sharks aren’t dangerous. Do you think you were indeed the first person?

I don’t know if I was, but it’s quite possible. I was out there with my husband working with sharks long before anybody else ever was, so I suppose everything we did and said was a first.

It really was just you and Ron who were out there swimming with the sharks before so many others. Was it hard to make a career out of that?

It was. We had no money. We were very poor; a young couple struggling to put food on the table and buy petrol for the outboard and film for the camera. But we found that we could sell footage of sharks.

Our main income came from selling film to television and before that to Movietone News. So, I guess when we chased after the sharks, it was to sell the footage. Neither the TV stations or Movietone news were interested in snapper or blennies or starfish, they wanted sharks. That’s what sold. So, we did it to make money.

"We had no money. We were very poor; a young couple struggling to put food on the table and buy petrol for the outboard and film for the camera"

What are the most interesting things you have learned about sharks?

I learned straight away that sharks are nowhere near as dangerous as the media would have us believe. And I learned that they all have different personalities—there’s the shy guy, the cross guy, and the aggressive guy; they’re all different. I also learned that you could train them to do a simple trick. With a little piece of fish, I’ve trained several sharks to do something I wanted them to do.

Like when were testing out the metal mesh suit to see if sharks biting pressure was as strong as some people were saying it was, we had to try and make the sharks bite us—they didn’t want to bite me. In fact, they refused most of the time.

Sharks swimming in the sea

You’ve done some incredible things throughout your life. Do you have a moment that you are most proud of?

I am thinking of a moment where I felt more excited than proud. It was when I left the cage while hundreds of dangerous sharks fed on a dead whale that we were harpooned to. We were filming Blue Water, White Death and I was with Peter Gimble, Stan Waterman and my husband.

We were following the whaling fleet and the sharks came up from the deep water. These are not coastal sharks. They’re open ocean sharks—the ones that attack people in drowned ships or airplanes that have crashed into the ocean.

We had been working with them in the cage for several weeks when Peter said, “I’ve been watching the sharks. They always bump the whale before they bite it.” And I had agreed that I had noticed that too and so did my husband. Peter said, “I think you could get out of the cages and you could bump them back with the camera housings.” And Ron said, “Yes, I think we can.” Stan was a little hesitant, and I was sort of thinking, Well, here we die. Mentally, I said goodbye to the world, to the ship, the crew, the sun.

That is such an intense moment!

Something that people don’t fully understand that in a situation like this, we were going back in time to a world that existed millions of years ago. And that world—or the things that happen in that world, what the sharks do, is still unchanged. The only thing that’s changed is us, the humans. So, we got out of the cage and the cameramen all had big camera housings to hit the sharks.

I had a little stick, but I found the stick to be very good. I discovered that sharks hate being jabbed in the gills. You hit them on the nose, and they don’t like it, but they’ll put up with that. They will not put up with being jabbed in the gills.

So, we made a place in the pack of sharks. They had tried many times to bump us and to put us in our place, but we fought back, and we were accepted as other marine animals that had come to feed on the whale. And I think that was possibly the most exciting time I’ve ever had in my life.

What can we do to help save the sharks, and our oceans?

I’ll tell you. I am quite pessimistic about the whole thing. Change has to come from the government level. So, I would say, nag your government. I’ve found it works. The thing that works the best is to get a good story—a really good story—and then get it on camera. “I’m down there patting a nice grey nurse shark.” Something like that.

"So, I would say, nag your government. I’ve found it works"

Then go on television and speak to the public. Say it to the mothers, “Wouldn’t you like your child, if they wanted to, when they’re old enough, to be able to see this wonderful, friendly shark? If you would like that, write to your politicians and tell them you want it protected.”

The politicians might not take any notice of your writing letters, but if they’re presented to the public as mean nasty, killers of kind, sweet fish, not caring about them, well, then they’ll react.

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