Ron and Valerie Taylor made their name filming sharks, finding that people had an endless fascination with these scary denizens of the deep.
Far from being afraid of sharks, this extraordinary couple actually sought out sharks to swim with – even the fearsome great whites – and fought battles to save them from mindless slaughter by trophy hunters and shark-finners.
Valerie Taylor has now told the story of their trailblazing life together in her book, Valerie Taylor: An Adventurous Life, written with Ben Mckelvey.
Adventurous is hardly the word for it.
She was fearless in the water, ready to try anything for the sake of a good shot.
For her, the ultimate adventure came in 1969 when she and Ron were among half a dozen divers filming a frenzy of three-metre sharks gorging on flesh from a nearby whaling ship.
As they filmed from submerged cages the sharks – oceanic whitetips – would repeatedly investigate the cages by bumping them with their noses, though they would always back off if they were challenged.
The divers decided to test this by getting out of their cages, diving in pairs, back to back, hitting back every time a shark bumped them.
Close to the whale carcass they could barely see each other in the blood-stained water, but further back it was very clear.
“As far as I could see were sharks, some carrying bleeding lumps of flesh, others sated but unwilling to leave the feast,” writes Valerie.
“It was full-on unadulterated, exciting action, glorious and exhilarating.We were all bumped, but there was no chance to be terrified….
“It was pure, concentrated excitement; an experience like no other.”
The hair-raising footage from that reckless dive was a highlight of the film, Blue Water White Death, which was shown around the world.
The film became the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster movie Jaws, which smashed box-office records and created a public obsession with sharks and the need to killl them.
“This beautiful fish became a fiendish monster lurking off the beaches and waiting to attack,” writes Valerie.
“I think there’s never been such a time of carnage for shark populations as there was after Jaws came out.”
Since their early days as spearfishing champions she and Ron had become increasingly passionate about protecting the underwater world.
The turning point came in 1967 when they took part in a six-month scientific exhibition filming the full 2300km length of the Great Barrier Reef.
“I think it was there that I truly started to appreciate the balance and delicate beauty of marine ecologies,” Valerie writes.
“We saw this wonder of nature before the destructive human hand changed it forever.”
In 1970 the couple mortgaged their small house in suburban Sydney to achieve their dream of making a televsion series on Australia’s marine life, from the largest animals to the smallest.
They already had a lot of quality underwater film that they owned outright, but they knew they would need a lot of expensive extra footage.
Channel Nine agreed to buy the 12 hallf-hour episodes, paying a minuscule $9000, on condition that the Taylors retained all rights, Australian and international, after four years.
NBC bought the series, Inner Space, for a whopping $US2 million. It changed their lives.
They sold their fibro shack in outer Sydney and bought their dream home in Roseville, a short drive from Manly Beach.
“This was a time of near unbridled happiness,” recalls Valerie.
“I was 37 years old and all those years of struggling to keep film in the camera was at last paying off. We had new dive gear, a new car and a debt-free future. Ron and I were on a roll.”
The Taylors were now recognised internationally for their skill and knowledge of the underwater world and were in constant demand for film work and
They used their celebrity status to rally public opinion and political action to protect sea lions, blue whales, giant potato cod and other sea life. Both were made Members of the Order of Australia for their conservation work.
Their efforts were not always appreciated. Valerie had death threats after she succeeded in getting legal protection for a sea lion colony off the New South Wales Coast.
“We all earn our living in the ocean and one day we’ll get you,” came the voice of an angry fisherman on her home phone late one night.
Her book is a page-turner filled with stories of travel and adventure, and also a powerful plea for awareness of the need to protect threatened
treasures like the Great Barrier Reef.
“Our marine world is a precious gift that sustains all life on this planet, yet we treat it harshly,” she says.
“We pollute its waters and harvest its life without thought for the future or a care for the destruction we leave in our wake.”
The Ron and Valerie partnership came to an end in 2012 when Ron died of myeloid leukaemia at the age of 78.
“It was the end of my love, and in many way the end of my life as I knew it,” she writes.
At 84 she is still diving – “Underwater I am 40 years old again… I enter a liquid world where I can fly in any direction.”
She is also writing, painting, and taking part in a film being made about her life.
Valerie Taylor, An Adventurous Life, written with Ben Mckelvey, is published by Hachette.