Playing with Sharks
Innovation & Tech Today|Fall 2021
Valerie Taylor began swimming with sharks as a teenager. Now, 70 years later, she reflects on her amazing journey as the world’s greatest living shark expert and protector of the species.
Robert Yehling

This is the time in her life when Valerie Taylor should be kicking back, reflecting on 70 years of dives with sharks, fish, moray eels, and other creatures of the sea. She should be playing back the countless experiences that led to more than five dozen photography and film shoots for National Geographic, Time-Life, IMAX, movies like Jaws and Jaws II, and culminating with the Disney+ epic documentary Playing With Sharks, her life story that premiered in mid-summer (and continues to stream on Disney+).

But that’s not the case. Sadly, due to a public perception that sharks are the source of a delicacy (shark fin soup), an interfering force for commercial fishermen, and deadly dangerous predators, the world’s shark population is approaching a critically low level. As much as she’d like to step back, Valerie cannot. It’s not in her nature, as her decades of establishing protected areas in her native Australia well prove. Plus, sharks have been her friends since she was a teenager. So, at age 85, she continues to voice her concerns.

“I really feel that sharks worldwide should be totally protected,” says the subject and star of Playing with Sharks. “According to what I’ve read, we have only 10 percent of the shark population that once existed. They’ve been taken mainly for their fins for shark fin soup. We don’t need shark fin soup; we need sharks. Nature put them in the ocean to do a job. They’re apex predators, top of the food chain. They keep the marine animals alive and fit by eating the diseased, sick, unwary, and stupid.”

Playing with Sharks is a 90-minute documentary masterpiece, produced by Bettina Dalton and written and directed by Sally Aikman — both keen followers of Valerie’s career since their own began. The movie combines priceless archival footage, shot primarily by Valerie’s late husband, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ron Taylor, who passed in 2012. In it, Valerie interacts with bull sharks, tiger sharks, great whites, and numerous others — often playfully. Playing games with sharks? Negotiating whether you or the shark is getting the fish you just speared? Getting rides by holding onto dorsal fins? It’s all in here.

The Taylors’ historic footage is mixed with live-action and candid and sassy voiceover, reflective of Valerie’s personality. The action includes a memorable return visit in 2020 to one of Valerie’s favorite spots in Fiji, and the remarkable relationship she’s forged with the ocean’s apex predators. In many ways, it was a reunion among old friends.

“Really early on, we filmed that scene in Fiji as our first scene, even though it’s later in the movie,” Aikman said. “On the dive boat on our return journey, we got the most extraordinary image of Valerie in repose, on the boat, looking out on the ocean. Then in the archival footage, there’s this image of Valerie in the 1960s, in Fiji, looking on the ocean in the same way. That night, on the rushes, I put up the shot of Valerie looking on the ocean alongside the archival image from the 60s. That’s when I realized there’s really something in this relationship of a life with the sharks that we can explore.”

A host of memories flooded back to Valerie during the Fiji shoot, including one of her most poignant experiences in decades of swimming with, filming, photographing, painting, and playing with sharks. To listen to her tell it, with the emotive sweep of her storyteller’s voice, is breathtaking.

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