For most of us, surviving a shark bite would be a life-altering experience. But for Valerie Taylor, it's just another day in the ocean. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the pioneering Australian underwater diver and photographer revealed that she's been bitten by multiple sharks during the course of her decades-long career, which is chronicled in Sally Aitken's new documentary, Playing With Sharks, premiering July 23 on Disney+. "I've been bitten four times, only once badly," Taylor says matter-of-factly. "And always, I stayed still and waited for the shark to let go."
Listen to Valerie Taylor narrate her own shark attack in this 3D augmented-reality experience
The bad bite in question happened in the Bahamas, where Taylor and her husband, Ron — who dived alongside her until his death in 2012 — were swimming with bull sharks. "I was walking up to my chest in water, because we could see a lot of bull sharks," recalls Taylor, who celebrated her 85th birthday last November. "We were in shallow water, so I just had my mask and snorkel and sneakers and took a breath and went underneath. I'm photographing a bull shark, and I feel something pulling on my foot. I turn around, and a big female had my foot in her mouth!"
Even with the unnerving sight of her foot between a bull shark's teeth, Taylor made sure to follow her own advice: stay still and wait for the shark to let go. "I looked at her, and she sort of looked a bit embarrassed and let go. I was bleeding, because her teeth had gone through my shoe into my foot. So I squished my way out, spurting blood everywhere. No one was taking any notice — including my husband!"
"I squished my up on shore, and asked a person watching to please pick the camera up and film me, which he did," Taylor continues. "I took off my sneaker and I had four punctures, two of them very deep. But no permanent damage to this day! Nothing at all. But it could have been bad — if I had pulled by foot away when I saw it in that shark's mouth, I wouldn't have a foot. It's as simple as that."
Taylor is quick to note that the bull shark that bit her wasn't hungry, but merely interested in the two-legged creature swimming in her territory. "Sharks are curious — they're like a pack of dogs," she explains. "There's always one that's more curious than the rest... and they feel with their teeth. That's when the trouble starts. "
Aitken suggests another takeway from Taylor's too-close encounter with a shark. "When Valerie speaks about how curious sharks are, I think the critical thing is whether or not we're curious back," the director observes. "If you have a scenario where a shark has come to investigate you, no predator expects its potential prey to turn around and stare it back down. So there's definitely some take home information here — whether or not you can actually enact it is another story!"
Funnily enough, when Taylor started her diving career in the 1950s, she more commonly speared sea creatures instead of photographing them. As Playing With Sharks illustrates, she rose to prominence as Australia's leading female spearfisher, and she and her husband participated together in competitions after their 1963 marriage.
But following one expedition where they watched multiple sharks being hunted and killed, they experienced a radical change of heart and became vocal conservationists. "You shouldn't be allowed to fish any sharks," Taylor says. "They all have a role to play in the ocean. Nature put them there for a reason, and it wasn't to feed us."
At the same time, though, the Taylors played a key role in making the movie that most effectively preyed on peoples' fear of sharks: Steven Spielberg's 1975 classic Jaws. The neophyte director had seen the couples' underwater footage, and enlisted them to shoot footage featuring actual great white sharks that could be used in his adaptation of Peter Benchley's bestselling novel. "Steven realized that you can't direct a shark, especially a great white," Taylor explains. "That's why the decided to make the giant mechanical shark, which so terrified people. I don't know why! It was mechanical, but there you go."
While Spielberg embarked on his legendarily difficult shoot in Martha's Vineyard, the Taylors stayed at home in Australia and took their cameras in search of great whites. The couples' footage is featured extensively in the film and ended up altering one character's fate. As per the book, Richard Dreyfuss's oceanographer, Matt Hooper, was originally going to become shark food in the climax when the great white bites through his supposedly shark-proof cage.
But when the Taylors staged that moment with a real great white, the cage was empty when the shark struck. Spielberg was so enamored with the footage that he rewrote the script on the fly, and Hooper escaped by the skin of his own teeth. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2019, Dreyfuss remembered filming Jaws's cage scene, but neglected to credit the Taylors for his survival.
"He never thanked us," Taylor jokes now. "It was just a fluke — it all happened so quickly. We were working from above, and the camera was right there and picked it up." That sequence also features one of Taylor's two cameos in Jaws. She and her husband are among the beachgoers during one of the Amity Island shark attacks early on in the film, and Taylor's hand is also glimpsed touching the great white shark as it circles Hooper's cage. "We all have a big scene, and that was mine," she says, laughing. "I can't say I appeared in Jaws, but my hand appeared in Jaws. To me, that counts."
After Jaws became Hollywood's first modern-day blockbuster, the Taylors were flown to America by Universal to provide the public with some much-needed shark education. But the couple quickly discovered that people were more persuaded by Spielberg's fictional yarn than their own years of experience. For years after the film's release, sharks were seen as menaces that needed to be hunted and killed before they could strike first.
"Jaws is a sensational movie — so clever and terrifying with such a good story," Aitken says of the movie's complicated legacy. "It's also a really good example of the fusion of fiction and documentary filmmaking techniques. And people have talked about becoming marine biologists because they saw Jaws as kids. But the immediate aftermath of the movie where very little was known about sharks resulted in this terrible slaughter and terrible reaction. As Valerie has said, trying to shift that perception has been a very long swim."
In recent years, Taylor says that she's started to see the impact of the advocacy work that she and her husband did for so many decades. While latter-day Jaws imitators like Deep Blue Sea and The Shallows continue to depict sharks as also supernatural killers, the general tenor of news and documentary coverage has moved in a more conservationist direction. And that, in turn, has inspired governments to take action. "The great white has been protected in most Australian states," Taylor notes with pride. Other nations have followed suit in protecting sharks, including the U.S., where President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act into law in 2011.
Still, the damage that has already been done will be hard to reverse. "It's estimated that only 10 percent of the large shark population remains, and that's a terrible statistic," Aitken says. "As Valerie says, even if we're protecting them from indiscriminate slaughter, we're jeopardizing their lives in other ways, and actually jeopardizing our own lives by doing so. She's a living witness to the change in our oceans."
And the things she saw beneath the waves live on forever in the footage she and her husband filmed. "I look at the ocean and what was in it, and I know I'll never see that again," she says, wistfully. "It's gone. The human race is treating the planet very harshly, and the marine world in particular. We humans cannot bring it back. There's only person who can: nature."
Playing With Sharks premieres July 23 on Disney+.
—Augmented-reality experience produced by Kat Vasquez
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