By: Steph Cannon
There are some people who live a life so full of accomplishments, and who do it with such grace, enthusiasm, and humility, that they are in a class all their own. It would be difficult to find someone who exemplifies this better than Valerie Taylor. Thanks to Sally Aitken's documentary PLAYING WITH SHARKS, the world will learn exactly what those accomplishments are while getting to know the enigmatic, shining beam of light that personifies who Taylor is.
The film opens with the Australian, now 85, gliding effortlessly around her home, preparing for a trip by grabbing a hot pink wetsuit from her closet. Even though it's our first introduction to Taylor, that one moment gives us insight into the colorful character that she is. She's effervescent and amiable as she speaks to the camera, meticulously folding the bright wetsuit into her suitcase.
Life didn't start off so breezy for her, however. She was struck with polio at the age of 12, bedridden and unable to walk for nine weeks. Upon recovery, Taylor made the conscious decision that it was time to take life by the horns and forge her own path.
Spurred by an adventurous spirit, and love for the ocean, she soon entered the world of Spearfishing and Skindiving (diving beneath the surface of the ocean without a wetsuit). At the time, both of these were largely male-dominated sports, but this didn't phase her. She took that as a personal challenge to prove herself amongst a sea of doubters, and, boy, did she ever. She excelled at it, quickly making a name for herself, and catching the eye of future husband Ron, who was also a champion in the sport.
The two became known as a power couple, even in those early days, pushing the envelope with how far they'd go to surround themselves with predators of the deep. It wasn't until spearing and killing a nurse shark, though, that Taylor began to feel remorse for her actions. "I only ever killed one shark", she states, "but I wish I hadn't." She explains that at the time, there was such an abundance of life in the ocean, and so little was known about the effects sport fishing would have on the ecosystem, that no one thought anything of it. The Taylors wanted to do better and vowed to only ever shoot sharks and marine life with their cameras.
As Taylor became more adept in her new role, her boldness and sense of adventure grew. She was in a constant state of thirsting for knowledge, matched only by her respect and adoration for the ocean's creatures. Her enthusiasm and delight of being face-to-face with a man-eating shark are both infectious and endearing. With her stunning features, and blonde hair tied up in her signature bright pink ribbon, it's a sweet juxtaposition that is the essence of who she was then, and still is to this day.
The talent the married duo had for oceanography led to the opportunity to shoot some of the most famous underwater footage in Jaws. Taylor reiterates how unaware she was of the recourse from such actions, recalling the increase in shark hunting around the world after the movie's release. She was a pioneer for conservation and educating the public on the importance of preserving these 450 million-year-old creatures, proving her point by, quite literally, playing with sharks.
The documentary is filled with gorgeous underwater shots of Taylor swimming fearlessly through schools of jellyfish, and holding eels as if they were puppies. It's a wonder that such a wealth of videos and photographs from so long ago exists in such impeccable condition, but also a testament to the love of the art both she and her husband had. It offers an in-depth look into one woman's passion, not just for marine life, but for life itself.
Flowing in like waves crashing on the shore are emotional swells, such as present-day Taylor speaking of how much she misses Ron, who passed away in 2012. It all leads up to the moving conclusion of her donning that bright pink wetsuit to take one last dive off the coast of Fiji.
To go into any more detail on those final scenes would be stealing away the joy felt in experiencing it for yourself, especially after watching endless footage of Taylor's astounding life and forming an attachment to the person she is. It's enough to make anyone want to begin checking items off their bucket list, or at the very least, stop allowing fear to keep them from life experiences.
PLAYING WITH SHARKS from National Geographic, premieres on Disney Plus on July 23rd.