Valerie Taylor played her role in scaring movie audiences in the 1975 film "Jaws."
More than four decades ago, the now-legendary diver, filmmaker and conservationist worked with her husband Ron Taylor to capture real underwater shark footage for Universal Studios and a young director named Steven Spielberg. The film footage the duo captured of a great white shark thrashing around an underwater cage became part of an unforgettable "Jaws" scene.
Taylor, now 85, would go on to battle the hysteria the hit movie unleashed toward sharks, the ocean’s most maligned and misunderstood creatures.
Her life journey from Bond girl-esque Australian spearfishing champion to passionate shark protector is explored in National Geographic's "Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story" (now on Disney+ premium) – with the "Jaws" backlash against sharks an enduring mystery to Taylor.
"For some reason, people believe the 'Jaws' shark was a real shark," Taylor says. "It's a fictitious story about a fictitious shark. It gave sharks a bad name. You don't go to New York and expect to see King Kong on the Empire State Building. It's the same with 'Jaws' and sharks."
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Valerie and her national spearfishing champion husband, Ron, had captured up-close, even harrowing, underwater shark footage for films before "Jaws," such as the 1971 documentary "Blue Water, White Death." But the assignment to shoot great white shark footage for a studio film based on Peter Benchley's novel "Jaws," about a killer white shark preying on a New England town, was the couple's first major Hollywood project.
It was an important assignment, and Spielberg wanted to go big, using a 25-foot mechanical shark (known as "Bruce") for film close-ups. That was a problem considering the difficulty in finding real sharks larger than 13 feet to film. Spielberg solved that by sending 4-foot-11 stunt man Carl Rizzo to Australia to shoot in a diminutive shark cage with the crew in a small-size reef boat.
The shark would look even larger by scale.
This plan went magnificently off the rails when a great white shark became inadvertently tangled in the (empty) cage's winch cable wires, struggling with such force that it brought the winch down.
"The cage broke off the winch and it all went tumbling down in a great big mess," Taylor recalls. "I saw this about to happen. I picked up the above-water camera and started filming, saying to myself, 'Keep your horizons straight.' Ron was down there. He filmed the shark with the cage coming down. It was all very dramatic."
Seeing Valerie and Ron's raw scenes of the shark encounter in "Playing with Sharks" is powerful viewing.
"Looking at that footage, you think there's no way that shark can get out of that (wire) tangle," director Sally Aitken says. "But it's pure muscle. It's really this demonstration of the shark's awesome physicality. And, it's important, the shark swam away safely."
The footage was sent to Spielberg, who incorporated the scene into Matt Hooper's (Richard Dreyfuss) harrowing underwater cage run-in for "Jaws."
The couple were impressed with their work, and the film when "Jaws" was released.
"We said, 'That's pretty good!'" Valerie says. "We had no idea at all, and neither did Universal, of the effect it would have on the general public. It never occurred to us that people would take it so seriously."
In the frenzied aftermath, people were irrationally frightful. Great white sharks were hunted down and killed in slaughter boat trips. Ron and Valerie worked to quell the fears.
"I had been an environmentalist for about 10 years, but this really set me into action," Valerie says. "We toured America doing every talk show, telling the general public not to be afraid to go in the water. It was certainly easy to get on all the talk shows."
The couple had an impact, and Valerie continued the shark advocacy work after Ron died in 2012. But people still are not getting the message today. The 400-plus species of sharks still bear the brunt of people's fearful ignorance and are still hunted to the point that sharks are disappearing from the world's oceans at an alarming rate.
Taylor continues to take any opportunity to speak for global shark protection, recently filming a Nat Geo TV special with fellow Australian Chris Hemsworth in "Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth."
"Sharks should be protected," Taylor says. "They are there to do a job. Nature doesn't make mistakes. They help the web of life in the ocean. We couldn't do that job anywhere near as well as sharks do."
The passionate octogenarian advocate aims to continue her educational work, and has no plans to stop diving anytime soon.
"On land, I stumble around like an old lady," Taylor says. "I can't run anymore. I can't jump anymore. But when I drop into the ocean, I can fly."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shark reeducating: Valerie Taylor is still undoing fear 'Jaws' inspired