By Laura Lopez, MWN
Written and directed by Sally Aitken, ‘Playing with Sharks’ is a documentary that tells the story of Valerie Taylor. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because this 85-year-old Australian has spent most of her life underwater. She started as a teenager and discovered her knack for fishing and diving. Then she met her husband, Ron Taylor, and the two began to make a name for themselves thanks to their knowledge of coral reefs.
At the end of the ’60s, they were already pioneers in filming white sharks, a task they carried out without the protective cells that are used today. This is why Steven Spielberg contacted them to film ‘Jaws’ (1975), the famous movie about a feared white shark. And others would follow, such as ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ (1996) and ‘The Blue Lagoon’ (1980), where Valerie, in particular, taught the actors how to film underwater, as well as some diving basics.
Metro had the opportunity to talk with Taylor, who, beyond Hollywood, has dedicated her life to activism for the conservation of sharks, which have been widely stigmatized and misunderstood due to a few attacks on humans. We were also joined by Sally Aitken and Bettina Dalton, director and producer of this documentary.
Valerie explained that this production’s goal is to make people understand sharks better:
“The film doesn’t make a difference for sharks, but hopefully it makes a difference in the perception. Sharks, in general, can be friendly, as much as dogs, but you have to give them a reason to want to be with you. Sometimes I give them a little piece of food and they follow me, as a dog would. That’s how I work with them in front of the camera. It may seem like a brave thing to do, but the truth is that they are there like puppies, waiting for you to give them a bite of fish.”
Taylor impressed the world with her ability to get close to these predators, but she says that she never thought people would take ‘Jaws’ seriously.
“It’s a film about a fictional shark. You wouldn’t expect to see King Kong on top of the Empire State Building in New York, so why would you expect to see Bruce on the beach? Meeting a shark is something very rare, very few will do it in their lives. And if you do, consider yourselves privileged,” she commented.
In addition, the activist stated that it is important to remember the role of sharks in the oceans, where they clean the fish population by eating the animals that are already old or unhealthy:
“They keep marine populations strong,” she explained while lamenting that they are hunted just for their fins. “It’s a terrible thing, it’s comparable to hunting elephants for their tusks, or tigers for their fur. I think we are a friendly race, but we only think of ourselves. And one day we will pay the price for thinking like that. We must take care of the sharks.”
SWIMMING AGAINST THE CURRENT
Despite the heroic life of Taylor and the great amount of work, much of what she has done in 60 years is being lost.
“There’s overfishing, and there’s not much that can be done. The world changed, I got older. I started diving when the water was pristine, and I don’t know another woman who has had a fortunate life as I have,” she said.
The documentary itself was also a titanic task:
“We had a very complete archive, and above all, Valerie’s enormous support. I realized that we had to tell her story and all that she has accomplished,” Bettina Dalton emphasized.
“Finding this narrative was a challenge, because we had so much material, over 50 years of journal entries, over 5k hours of videos to review, all the photos of Valerie and Ron… It was huge and fascinating because we see a woman who, in an unlikely way, befriends one of the most antagonized animals in the sea. I was determined to tell a story of a wonderful life that would also give us a new way of looking at these animals that are so important to the ocean,” Sally Aitken added.
According to Dalton, Taylor’s work provides insight into what marine ecosystems were like before the human damage.
“There we can see what we had and what we have lost,” she explained.
Aitken added that she continues to “learn and be inspired” by the work Taylor has done and all the stories she has to tell.
“It woke me up. There is a collective responsibility we have, and we have the power to make a difference,” Aitken said. “For example, Valerie showed us how overfishing has wreaked havoc, and I’m from New Zealand, where together with my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, we had pictures with all the seafood that was in abundance. I never realized my responsibility and my relationship to the exploitation of the oceans, so this has been like an awakening, which I think many will have as well. Conservation is in each one of us.”
‘Playing with Sharks’ is streaming now on Disney +.