At 85, Valerie Taylor Is Still Fighting to Save Sharks

The conservationist and pioneer made more than 10,000 dives in 60 years.

Valerie Taylor with Chris Hemsworth in Australia
Valerie Taylor with Chris Hemsworth in Australia.

NationalGeographic / Craig Parry

Valerie Taylor started competitive spearfishing in the 1950s but she quickly turned her focus to saving the large predators that joined her in the water. Taylor became an ardent shark conservationist, expert, and marine pioneer.

She and her husband Ron made documentaries, took photos, and were diving trailblazers. They worked with a young director named Steven Spielberg to shoot the great white shark scenes on what would be the blockbuster movie “Jaws.” 

Taylor has been “nipped” a few times by sharks, but never holds the animals responsible. Instead, at 85, she still works passionately to discover how sharks and humans can safely coexist.

Taylor is the subject of two new films. In “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” on National Geographic, Taylor joins the "Thor" actor, who is also an ardent surfer and environmentalist. They go on a dive where she spots the largest nurse shark she’s ever seen. The show premieres on July 5 to kick off Shark Week.

Later this month, another documentary focuses on Taylor’s life. “Playing with Sharks” premieres on Disney+ in late July. The film had its world premiere in January at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Taylor spoke to Treehugger via email about standout moments, close encounters, and what she would still like to accomplish.

Treehugger: Your first foray into the water as a professional was for competitive spearfishing. What made you give up your spear for a camera?

Ron and myself became sick of the killing for sport. We both had won the Australian spearfishing titles and were looking at hundreds of dead fish lying on the sand. Ron said "I don't like killing these beautiful fish. I am not doing it any more.'. I agreed and we walked away from spearfishing at the top of the game.

How did you become fascinated with sharks? What about them was so compelling?

Spearfishing brought us into close contact with sharks usually when they were trying to steal our fish. They were no more compelling than a manta ray or a school of tuna it was just they were a good exciting subject. We learned very early in our UW filming days that good shark footage sold, feather stars, and clownfish didn't.

Valerie Taylor in 1975
Valerie Taylor posing with camera equipment in 1975.

Ron and Valerie Taylor

You’ve made more than 10,000 dives in 60 years. Do you see and learn something different each time? Are there any particular moments that stand out?

There are thousands of moments that stand out but leaving the cage and joining hundreds of potentially very dangerous sharks during the filming of “Blue Water White Death” and surviving was perhaps the greatest moment. 

On one trip, crew members didn’t realize they had left her behind in the water and she was in the Maluku Islands of Indonesia for hours. She anchored herself with her hair ribbons so the current wouldn’t carry her away and yelled until someone found her.

Surfacing in the middle of the Banda Sea and seeing the mother ship disappearing over the horizon was definitely one of the most horrifying.

In all those dives, how many close encounters did you have with sharks that were a little too close? Were you ever frightened?

I don't get frightened, I get excited. There is a difference but not much.

Director Bruno Valati films Valerie Taylor
Director Bruno Valati films Valerie.

Ron and Valerie Taylor

You and your late husband Ron became famous for your documentaries. What was your goal each time you made one?

Having a great adventure, recording that adventure then selling it to a TV station for enough money to live on while we went out and had another one. For our first documentary series, we had to borrow against our house. The series sold to NBC network in the states. Our government took 65% tax, our agent 30%. There was enough left over for us to buy a better house.

When you worked on the movie “Jaws,” were you surprised how the movie was received and how people perceived sharks after it came out?

“Jaws” is a fictitious story about a fictitious shark. Yes, we were very surprised. Also somewhat dismayed at the reaction of the general public.

You’re now in two new documentaries. In “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth,” you take him diving and spot the largest gray nurse shark you’ve ever seen. What was that adventure like?

Chris was wonderful, but the ocean was horrible. A huge swell that made staying in one spot at 65 feet impossible, very murky water. Chris loved it but I knew how wonderful that dive could be and felt the ocean was very unkind that day.

Valerie Taylor

National Geographic / Craig Parry

“Playing with Sharks” is a documentary about your own life. Your bio includes conservationist, photographer, filmmaker, author, artist,  and global marine pioneer. What do you still want to accomplish?

The taking of sharks for their fins, the harvesting of krill for pig and chook food, the mass extermination of marine life stopped before it is too late for that life to regenerate. None of this will happen. Plastic and human waste will also play a part in the death of our oceans. Marine animals are free for the taking and while there is a fish or shark that can be caught and sold we greedy humans will continue to take. The eventual price we will pay for this indiscriminate slaughter of wild animals is the demise of ourselves. This is a fact overlooked by the powers that be. 

There are already too many people on this earth all wanting to live like the average American, eating up the limited supply of natural resources this planet can offer. I am very old, I have witnessed the terrible ever faster death of our world. Nature gave mankind the perfect home but we ungrateful humans have taken this gift and are treating it harshly. I have had my day in the sun, sadly, unless we change our greedy grasping ways, future generations will never know how wonderful life can be, they will only know the sad remains of a paradise gone forever.