Valerie Taylor: Playing With Sharks

PG, 94 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury 






To be fair, a fear of sharks is sound as far as phobias go. If a shark appears, who has the presence of mind to decide it belongs to the great majority that aren’t a danger to humans? Getting the hell out of the water is the sensible option.

How much worse is our primal fear for having watched Jaws? Of for seeing Blue Water, White Death, the American documentary that came before it?

Jaws was a setback for sharks, according to views expressed in this richly informed new documentary from director Sally Aitken. The documentarian has directed episodes of recent fine television series like David Stratton: A Cinematic Life and The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill.

The subject of Aitken’s doco, Valerie Taylor, provided content for both Jaws and Blue Water, White Death, films that famously sensationalized the danger posed by sharks.

She was a daring diver, the real deal underwater, until a fishing trip in pursuit of great white sharks turned her into a passionate advocate for shark protection and marine conservation.

She wasn’t on the fishing trip. It was Ron Taylor, her husband, who witnessed the slaughter of a large number of great white sharks. It upset the couple so much that it was a turning point and they became passionate marine conservationists.

Valerie Taylor is still with us now. In her mid-80s and as forthright as ever as an advocate for the underwater world.

If Valerie could be in the frame for footage with more drama and danger, all the better

The diving life had begun in her hometown of Sydney in the 1950s. She was the blonde in a homemade bikini who became a champion spear fisher and appeared on the covers of magazines. When she teamed up with her husband, Ron, a world champion spearfisherman and filmmaker, there was only a handful of people anywhere in the world who were shooting underwater.

The television networks in Australia were demanding footage with more drama, and more danger. If Valerie could be in the frame, all the better.

When Steven Spielberg decided he wanted the live shark action in Jaws filmed first, he made contact with the famous scuba-diving couple, the Taylors. They were commissioned to supply footage of great white sharks that was consistent with monsters of the deep.

They then had to improvise. The great whites off Port Lincoln in South Australia were only 13 feet long, considerably shorter than the 25-foot creatures required by the script.

Resulting, unplanned footage was so extraordinary that Spielberg put it in his film, Jaws

Valerie recalls that they had models made for the shark cage that were half the size of adult humans.

During filming, a great white savagely attacked a cage that was empty at the time. The resulting, unplanned footage was so extraordinary that Spielberg put it in his film, allowing for the character played by Richard Dreyfuss to escape with his life.

One of the most rivetting scenes in Playing With Sharks are of the dive the Taylors made outside a cage, swimming among great whites. It was the first time this had ever been attempted anywhere in the world.

As Valerie recalls, they did whatever they could to make a living out of what they loved to do. She was the whippet slim blonde whose exploits appeared in magazines. Her husband was the cinematographer there to record them for posterity.

It’s easy to imagine that the determination that helped Valerie overcome polio as a 12-year-old helped spur her on to be daring and give things a go. Perhaps her love of reading Mark Twain adventures also helped with her can-do attitude.

During production, director Aitken had access to the extensive Taylor archive. Interviews with experts have also been assembled to testify to the significance of the Taylors’ achievements. It is quite a story.

A couple of generations may have watched the ridiculously successful blockbuster Jaws since 1975, but the scenes of Valerie on a recent visit to Fiji might help allay a few fears.

There she is, in pink wetsuit with coloured ribbon in her hair, beneath a swirling pack of bull sharks, a species returning in greater numbers to Oceania. It’s an awesome sight and a great outcome for the inspiring conservationist.

Of the 400 or so species of shark, only 5 to 6 types may bite you. As Valerie Taylor asserts, you don’t wander around New York City worrying about King Kong.

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 June 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes