Valerie Taylor. 'Playing with Sharks' uses older footage to show Taylor's journey from spearing sharks to shooting them on camera, and turning conservationist. The film is on Disney+Hotstar. (Image: screen grab)
Simply called ‘Fish in stew’, the soup was introduced to the imperial Chinese palate during the Song dynasty (year 960 to 1250). By the time the Ming and the Qing dynasties took over, Shark Fin Soup was a delicacy and responsible for the deaths of many thousands of sharks in the seas and the ocean surrounding China and Taiwan. And the resulting environmental damage? Irreparable. But thanks to pioneers like Valerie Taylor, who once ruled spear fishing and is now a protector of these gorgeous marine marvels, the sharks are no longer killed mindlessly. I regret having shark fin soup at culinary feasts in Hong Kong and will perhaps make better choices today.
Watching Playing With Sharks on Disney+Hotstar surely opened my eyes. Sharks - Great White or not - are not like Bruce from Jaws, mindless killing machines. They are super athletes, ancient survivors of the seas.
But first, more about the truly awesome woman behind this documentary. A woman who broke all gender norms and became a spear fishing champion, and is now, at 85 still diving, but now championing the rights of sharks for conservation of marine life. Valerie May Taylor.
I watched with my jaw to the floor as they talked about great white sharks as ‘Submarines with teeth!’ And the more I watched, the more I said, ‘Incredible!’
If the whale is dead in the sea, bait for all fish, especially sharks, they’ll not bite it immediately. They will bump against the whale to make sure it is really dead, and then they’ll take a bite. That reminds me: if you are in that shark cage, and the shark bumps into the cage, is it making sure that the cage is dead, so it can come back and take a bite out of you?
The documentary is superb because it unfolds the magnificent life of a beautiful, fearless girl who overcame the trauma of childhood polio and chose to dive. The footage captures Valerie Taylor’s life from a young girl (one of the seven girls competing to spear fish against hundreds of men) to an underwater cinematographer and shark-bait and now as a preserver of the beautiful creatures called sharks.
‘All conservationists were once hunters,’ we are told and that is not wrong. It’s only when you see senseless killing that you realise that you have somehow contributed to the unnecessary slaughter of these beautiful sea creatures because you showed them as dangerous in the films you shot…
Valerie and her husband Ron Taylor were first consulted to help create a documentary Blue Water, White Death which showed the world how powerful sharks were, and how dangerous and unpredictable the great white sharks could be. Little did they know that this documentary would become the bible of divers around the world, and Hollywood would come to them for underwater footage of the Great White sharks.
Peter Benchley, who had been inspired to write his book, had Universal Studios ask Valerie and Ron if the book would make for a great film. Stephen Spielberg (had made only one film until then) came across as a teenager, wanting a 25 foot shark when in reality sharks were no more than 14 or 15 feet at the most. This part of the documentary was like being on the set of Jaws, the film, which did not turn out to be the B-grade film Valerie was expecting it to be, but one of the highest grossing films ever.
But show people one film about how killing Bruce would be the ultimate macho thing, and it brought on a deluge of shark killings in Australia. It was distressing to watch how our species will kill just to prove our superiority over creatures.
Valerie’s work on conservation began when she realised that the sharks (and other fish) - which were once seen as plentiful - were depleting in numbers. I love the grit of this woman and the glint in her eyes when she insists that all sharks have individual personalities. My heart remains in my mouth when she sets out to prove that sharks are intelligent and can mind their own business in the water, as long as you stay calm.
She talks about divers and ocean conservationists around the world (including Jacques Cousteau) and the work that has been done. No longer with a gun and harpoons but with cameras. This documentary has been the best first-person underwater encounters with sharks that National Geographic has commissioned. You just cannot miss watching this wonderful woman who knows she’ll be diving even though she’s in a wheelchair. "I can fly" underwater, she says, "there’s no gravity!"
I want to grow old just like Valerie Taylor, full of life. And just as she raises her glass to the real life sharks, I wish to toast the sharks of my own life that I am sure to vanquish some day. To the sharks!