The Current

Sharks have been long misunderstood, says conservationist who filmed scenes for Jaws

An Australian filmmaker and conservationist who shot some of the underwater scenes for the 1975 thriller Jaws says she’s seen the health of our oceans deteriorate significantly since the early days of her career.

After 1975 thriller stoked fear of sharks, Valerie Taylor set out to protect them

Valerie Taylor with the mechanical great white shark 'Bruce,' during the filming of Jaws. (© Ron & Valerie Taylor)

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An Australian filmmaker and conservationist who shot some of the underwater scenes for the 1975 thriller Jaws says she's seen the health of our oceans deteriorate significantly since the early days of her career.

"No child today will ever ever know … how rich the marine life used to be. They'll only know what man has done to it," Valerie Taylor, 85, told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"I go out off the coast of New South Wales where I live, and I feel sad. I go to the Barrier Reef and I feel sad. It's just not the way it was."

Taylor began scuba diving off the coast of Australia in the 1950s, before becoming a champion spearfisher.

In the 1960s, she and her late husband, Ron Taylor, became focused on environmental conservation and moved away from spearfishing to film sharks for documentaries.

Valerie and Ron Taylor near Australia's Norfolk Island, in an undated photo. Both were spearfishers, but eventually turned their efforts to conservation. (© Ron & Valerie Taylor)

Together, they became the first divers to film great white sharks underwater without the protection of a cage, and explored waters where most people have never been.

Taylor's life and work are the subject of a new documentary, Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story, premiering Thursday at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto.

Jaws and the myth-making of the 'man-killer'

Swimming in the ocean with sharks is one of the most exciting things Taylor said she's ever done in her life.

But after filming Jaws, she was surprised to realize the movie was fuelling the animal's reputation as a terrifying killer, and stoking fear that all sharks are dangerous.

"It's a fictitious story about a fictitious shark. [It] never occurred to us that people would take it so seriously. And it certainly didn't occur to Universal [Pictures]," Taylor told Galloway. 

The great white — the shark species and villain at the centre of the 1975 blockbuster film Jaws. (©Ron and Valerie Taylor)

"They took us back to America, Ron and I, and we toured America doing every talk show, telling the people ... sharks weren't as bad as the shark in Jaws."

But they never seemed to be able to get the message across, Taylor said. 

"I'd be down there petting a nice, big, fat shark and saying it's a good shark, it's nice, it's gentle and I'm gentle…. That's a very important thing," she said of how to treat the fish. "And I think the general public or people want a monster."

Taylor with her marine camera in an undated image. She and her husband were the first people to film great white sharks underwater without the protection of a cage. (© Ron & Valerie Taylor)

In the years following the Hollywood blockbuster's release, thousands of people began hunting sharks as trophy prizes, shark researcher George Burgess told the BBC in 2015. Armed with the belief that sharks were "man-killers," fishers had little remorse for killing the creatures, he said.

By the 1980s, fishers began targeting the animals for their fins, as an international market for them boomed, Burgess told the Florida Museum of Natural History. Hunters would slice off the shark's fins while the animal was still alive, then toss the rest of its living body into the ocean, where it would eventually sink and die. Demand was fuelled in part by a desire for shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in part of Asia.

Canada banned shark fins from being imported into the country in 2019. Although domestic shark-finning was outlawed in 1994, Canada had remained the third-largest importer of shark fins outside of Asia.

Protecting the grey nurse shark

Taylor described the shark "slaughter" as "absolutely horrific."

Many shark species would never hurt a human, she said, offering the grey nurse shark as an example.

Although several rows of sharp, jagged teeth give them a frightening appearance, grey nurse sharks are rarely aggressive unless provoked, according to the Queensland Museum in Australia.

A grey nurse shark swims in a pool at the Grand Aquarium in Saint-Malo, France, on Feb. 21, 2020. Misconceptions that the species was a 'man-eater' helped fuel its decline, as they became the target of hunters. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

But myths about grey nurse sharks being "man-eaters" made them the target of spearfishers, and the species' population greatly declined over the years.

Worldwide, the number of oceanic sharks and rays dropped by more than 70 per cent between 1970 and 2018, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Nature.

The killing spree that followed the release of Jaws inspired Taylor to help save sharks like the grey nurse. Thanks in part to her efforts, the grey nurse became the first protected shark in the world when the Australian government passed legislation to preserve the species in 1984.

'Underwater, I can still fly'

Today, Taylor said she's inspired to see that more marine areas around the world are protected.

And she still gets a rush from exploring the oceans herself. 

Rolling out of a boat and diving through the water is like going "from one world to another," she said. 

"I could fly across the Grand Canyon if it was full of water. You can't do that on land. I can't even run, I'm so old," Taylor said. 

"But underwater, I can still fly."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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