Valerie Taylor is a singular personality when it comes to ocean exploration, particularly when it comes to sharks. The two go together hand in glove. Along with her husband, Ron Taylor, she was at the vanguard of swimming with, interacting with, and filming potentially dangerous sharks from the late 1950s onwards. An enthralling Disney documentary about her life, Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, premiers tonight on Disney+.
Valerie Taylor, Bettina Dalton (executive producer), and Sally Aitken (director) discussed Playing with Sharks with SCINQ.
SCIENTIFIC iNQUIRER: How did everyone get involved and why did you get involved with this project?
BETTINA DALTON: My interest started when I was a teenager, and I saw images of Ron and Valerie, and especially the image of Valerie and the chainmail suit on the front of the National Geographic magazine in the 1980s. It was a completely galvanizing moment for me. It really changed the way I thought about the world, especially the natural world. She was my Marvel superhero before the age of influencers and Instagram. There was a real woman really doing what she believed needed to be done and showing us a world that we would otherwise not have seen.
I went on to become a natural history filmmaker and was fortunate enough to be asked to direct a three part series on Valerie’s life more than 20 years ago. That’s how I got exposed to the richness of the archive collection and got to know their incredible pioneering spirit and famous people. We became staunch friends and sadly we lost, Ron almost 10 years ago now.
It occurred to me one moment sitting and watching the feature film about Jane Goodall in the cinema. Why hadn’t we made a film about Valerie Taylor, a singular woman who can paint a photograph who dared to step out of a cage in the middle of the Indian Ocean surrounded by a school of oceanic whitetip sharks.
SALLY AITKEN: I don’t come from a natural history background, and so for me the story was very compelling because it was an exciting adventurous tale in which, we as viewers of Valerie’s life would be able to experience the magic of the underwater world. What actually became increasingly apparent to me was that the archival footage was not only rich but also absolutely beautiful. It is also an historic record. The project became a film that became loaded with love – love between Valerie and her late husband Ron, a love letter to their adventures in the marine space, and a love letter to the ocean and sharks. It was an irresistible story and we’ve been so, so overwhelmed by the response to the film.
SCINQ: In terms of making the film, there was obviously a lot of archival material available. Were there any bits that you wish could have made it into the film but didn’t make the cut?
SALLY AITKEN: We would have needed a 10 part series for all the footage. We very much cherry picked some pivotal moments of Valerie’s life. Of course, there are many things that we wished could have been in the film.
Valerie is an extraordinary artist, as recently as last month her illustrations were beamed up on the white sails of the iconic Sydney Opera House. Her photography, which is in the film, was so pioneering back in the early 1970s. Her macrophotography was the first of its kind, pioneering with technology that Ron had invented in the back shed of their house. She taught Mick Jagger how to scuba dive! Why is that not in the film?
SCINQ: Now Valerie. You’ve led an amazing life and career. You’re a trailblazer that transcends gender. Were there any points where you doubted what you were doing?
VALERIE TAYLOR: I never doubted things. My husband Ron was a genius. For example, he was the one who figured out how to adjust the lenses in my underwater cameras so they could do macro photography underwater, long before anybody else. In the picture of me on the cover of National Geographic, I was holding this new device that Ron had made. When National Geographic saw some of the imagery we had taken, they said that they had never seen such macro work.
SCINQ: Can you discuss what it was like working with sharks and getting your footage to wider audiences?
VALERIE TAYLOR: We had to make a living and shot footage sold those days. They put it in theaters — 16 millimeter and 35 millimeter — and showed it all around the world. Then came television. The news channels would buy anything to do with sharks. At the time, we didn’t have much competition. As far as I can remember we had no competition so every weekend, we’d go out and film sharks, just interact with them. I already knew quite a bit about their behavior from my spearfishing days.
The general public have an appetite for these magnificent creatures, potentially dangerous depending on the species but not too bad. It always amazes me how people react to a shark bite when it’s in the news. They say things like “There’s no good shark, but a dead shark”, things like that. It’s untrue.
If we want to visit an alien environment, one that belongs to a different bunch of creatures, that’s our decision. Sharks don’t come up on land and chase you across the beach and into the ice cream shop. You go into their environment and, I guess, occasionally, you’ll come into contact with one.
SCINQ: Do you have a favorite species? Okay.
VALERIE TAYLOR: Yes it’s the gray shark, and I had it protected. It was the first shark in the world to ever be protected by law. I worked at it because it’s a big shark with a sweet face and lots of teeth and it’s not dangerous to humans.
SCINQ: Since you’ve started diving, the oceans have changed a lot. Can you speak to how they’ve changed and how they’ve changed in terms of shark populations?
VALERIE TAYLOR: I started diving in the late 50s. Sharks were there. Fish were there. The ocean was pristine. Now, a diver who goes into the ocean will see a different world compared to what I saw then. They’ll see what man has done to it and it’s not nice. It’s not pretty. They’ll never know what they can’t see. They will never know how rich and beautiful the oceans were.
The Disney documentary, Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, premiers tonight on Disney+.
IMAGE SOURCE: Ron and Valerie Taylor.