If underwater photographer, filmmaker and conservationist Valerie May Taylor didn’t exist, the movies would have to invent her. Lucky for us she does, and Sally Aitken’s revelatory and fascinating documentary Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story gives Taylor, now a spry 85, her well-deserved due.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the lithe and attractive Sydney native made her mark in the macho world of deep sea diving and shooting footage of marine life, selling the adventure films and photos to outlets such as National Geographic. There weren’t many underwater explorers then; Taylor and her husband and diving partner Ron followed the path of the renowned Jacques Cousteau. Since Cousteau sported a signature red cap, Valerie Taylor paid homage by wearing a red ribbon in her long, blonde hair.
Like Brett Morgen’s 2017 documentary Jane with its revealing footage of pioneering scientist Jane Goodall, the film takes us back to a time when women were so rare as adventurers and explorers that they were both dismissed or ogled, especially if they looked like Meryl Streep.
Valerie and Ron Taylor shot underwater sequences for many major films over the years. It was the 1971 surprise hit documentary Blue Water, White Death that first triggered the public’s fascination with sharks. But this was nothing compared with the tidal wave of interest after the release of Jaws. The Taylors worked on Steven Spielberg’s movie, shot in the waters off Australia, never imagining it would become a blockbuster.
This is one of most intriguing parts of Playing with Sharks, especially for cinephiles. The shark hunting frenzy unleashed by Jaws made the Taylors regret the role they’d played in it. They vowed to devote their efforts to educating the public about the relative safety of sharks and about marine conservation in general. Today, Taylor takes photographs of thick wads of shark fins hanging on boats after being killed for their fins, a delicacy in China. This documentation, she says, will show what happened to shark species as they’ve become more and more decimated.
The film’s use of archival footage, shot by Ron, of Taylor swimming with and playing with sharks, is extraordinary. She even donned a novel metallic suit for an underwater dive and enticed a shark to bite her arm in order to prove that sharks don’t have jaws of death. Interviews with Taylor’s colleagues are insightful but it’s Taylor herself who anchors the film with her clear-eyed memories of her deep-sea adventures and about her happy life with Ron, who died of leukemia in 2012.
For the film’s moving finale, Taylor returns to Fuji, where she and Ron dove many times. Aitken cuts this present day adventure with footage of Taylor in her youth as she dives off a boat and into the deep. Though no longer limber, Taylor manages to get into her bright pink wet suit and takes the plunge from a boat. Now, as then, she’s focused, determined, fearless and full of joy.