I’d never heard of Valerie Taylor before “Playing with Sharks,” but Sally Aitken’s loving tribute makes a compelling case for why the pioneer in underwater filmmaking and shark research should be better known. Her inspiring life story seems especially well-suited for a children’s book. A former champion spearfisher, Taylor credits a personal epiphany with her decision to dedicate her life to changing humans’ misconceptions about sharks. “From now on, I’m shooting them with a camera,” she recalls thinking.
“Very little was known about sharks in those days,” Taylor explains. You could observe the animals from the boat but not below the surface. She, along with her husband, Ron, filmed the first images in the world of Great White sharks swimming underwater and shot all the underwater live shark footage for “Jaws.”
Of course, “Jaws” didn’t serve as the best PR for sharks. Despite being a work of fiction, the iconic blockbuster further cemented the creatures’ reputation for preying on humans — a legacy that Taylor was determined to correct. With statistics on her side, she vowed “to prove that sharks are not out to get us,” and humans pose a greater risk to them than the other way around. That mission saw her turning herself into shark bait to illustrate just how skewed public perception is about sharks and their behavior.
Taylor’s contributions to the scientific community are considerable, but what truly stands out about her — and the doc — is her remarkable sense of adventure. After contracting polio as a child, she spent her days lost in adventure books. As an adult, she turned her own life into the equivalent of one. She vowed to have her “own special life,” and what a life it’s been.
“Playing with Sharks” features breathtaking footage of Taylor with sharks. I’m well aware of the fact that shark attacks are exceedingly rare, but the fear of sharks remains so deeply ingrained in me — and surely millions, billions of others — that seeing Taylor in such close proximity to them makes for an eye-popping experience. At one point in the film, she recalls being convinced that she’d die the first time she swam with Great White sharks out of the cage. Still, she didn’t consider not going. “Everything you do in life is a calculated risk,” she says. “Even a cup of tea could burn you.”
In a particularly moving scene Taylor, aged 85, swims with bull sharks. It’s a struggle to get on her wetsuit, but it’s so clear just how alive she feels in the water and enjoying the company of sharks. Time has changed her body, bringing aches and pains, but her spirit remains the same.
Besides being entertaining and enjoyable, “Playing with Sharks” also packs a powerful message. “I like to think of Valerie as an ‘accidental conservationist,’” Aitken explained, “and this movie is very much not your typical conservation film. Hopefully, the force of Valerie’s unique story and our techniques of intercutting the present with the archive compels and empowers people to consider the fragility of our oceans and the need to protect them.”
“Playing with Sharks” is now available on Disney+.