At The Sundance Film Festival Q&A for Playing With Sharks, the subject of the film, 85 year-old Valerie Taylor proved quite a character. Surrounded on Zoom by the film’s director, Sally Aitken, producer Bettina Dalton and editor Adrian Rostirolla, the ground-breaking diver stole the show and certainly charmed American viewers.
While there was no standing ovation as probably would have happened had the festival been live, critics have embraced the film, which most prominently shows how the stunningly beautiful Valerie and her husband Ron worked on Jaws, which had the inadvertent effect of demonising Valerie’s beloved creatures.
What is your favourite shark?
“The grey nurse shark. It’s also called the sand tiger in the USA. It has a sweet, gentle nature. It grows big; it looks dangerous. I often go down and sit on the bottom of the coast here in Australia and let them swim around me calmly. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do this. And the beauty of it is that everybody in the world who wants to has this opportunity.”
The moment in your film that I can’t shake is when you put bait onto your chain wetsuit and you allow sharks to bite at it, to prove an incredible point that these bites are so often not lethal at all. It was on the cover of National Geographic. I mean, this is environmental activism at its finest. So, kudos to you for doing this. My question though is how there is still this stigma about sharks, even after your proving such a magnificent point. Why does this stigma still exist and what can we do to help dispel this?
“I don’t think you will ever entirely dispel it. All human beings, of every type in every country, like to have a baddie out there. A wicked witch, an evil spirit, something horrible. In the society in which we find ourselves, where we know there is no witch and no bad spirit, we’re looking for something to be the baddie and we’ve zeroed in on the shark. And why? Why fear this animal? I mean, more people get killed going to the beach in traffic than being bitten by a shark.”
How did you feel being approached by a filmmaker who wanted to talk about your life, warts and all?
“I was a little bit surprised. Everything we did was Ron (her husband and diving partner) and I. We had been approached by all sorts of companies in Hollywood, television stations, all sorts of things. And when Ron died, it was just me. And I can honestly say, I thought at the time that it was a good idea. We had the footage. I’d been on camera for 50 years. And the end result was Playing with Sharks. I wanted to have more input, but because of the Coronavirus that was impossible.”
We have a question from an 11 year- old who wants to know if you were ever injured diving or on an expedition?
“I have been injured. I’ve been bitten a few times by sharks. But just so you know, if you’re going to be bitten by a shark make sure you’re working for Hollywood. They have helicopters, plastic surgeons, the whole raving bit.”
What obstacles did you face as a woman in this male-dominated field at that time?
“None. I was good at what I did. I had a husband who supported me. I spent a lot of time on crummy fishing boats, I was the only female, and we had a bucket with a rope for a toilet and I hated that. I stood up for myself as I do today, and I enjoyed it. It was a challenge. I must have been the sort of woman who liked a challenge. In my brain (I’d think) ‘Listen you ape, I’ll show you!’ and I’d jump off the boat in the middle of the sharks. I showed him!”
You are clearly fearless. But what is your biggest fear? Do you have one?
“I do. It’s heights. You know, you can swim, but you can’t fly. If I stand on the edge of a cliff, I’m terrified I’m going to fall off.”
You mentioned in the film that the sharks accepted you as fellow marine creatures. Did you feel a commonality in communicating with them?
“I already understood a lot about the personality of potentially dangerous sharks when we did Blue Water, White Death (1971). I knew that they would give you respect if you were fearless, if you approached them, looked them in the eye and swam towards them. They’d think that prey doesn’t do this; prey flees. Sharks are very difficult to work with, unless you know them very, very well. And to be quite honest, we never decided, except on a couple of rare occasions, to get out of the cage and work with the great white. But even the great white, and we rescued them twice from certain death, both times I feel that animal knew we wanted to help it.”
People would love to know your thoughts now on Jaws. How do you feel about the collaboration?
“I can only say that for my husband and myself, it was a great collaboration. I don’t feel that it was a bad thing. I just feel rather sadly that the general public throughout the world looked at it differently to how it was presented. It’s the story of a fictitious shark doing something no great white would ever do. Yet now there are people around the world who believe the great white will do this or will not do this. Mind you, in Australia we have to work in a cage. In South Africa, you don’t need a cage. We shot an entire 30-minute documentary with five great whites and no cage in South Africa. That was the start of the South African tourist industry having divers go there to see sharks. I have been off Guadeloupe, off Mexico with great white sharks. And they’re just pussy cats. You don’t need a cage. It’s amazing. Unfortunately, ours have a different personality and they can be very aggressive. But I’ve only met two outside the cage and both times they didn’t cause us any real trouble. Except a heart attack, of course.”
I still can’t believe how crazy that must have been to see what Jaws became… So, what is the best way to support shark conservation?
“In America there are several groups. Now, I’m sitting in the theatre and I can’t give you the details. But you only probably have to Google them, and you’ll find the best way to support the conservation of sharks and of the whole marine world.”
What is your favourite location to swim with sharks?
“I have two, Fiji and the Bahamas. Fiji is close. The sharks are wonderful, and they are in the film. I recommend it one hundred per cent. In the Bahamas the water is clear, the sharks are friendly, and they only occasionally bite someone. But that’s a long way away. I would like to go there tomorrow.”