“You convince yourself that there is no danger,” Ron Taylor once said of how he captured his groundbreaking underwater footage of sharks. And afterwards, “You wonder how you got out of it alive.”
In 1970, Australian divers Taylor and his wife, Valerie, set out with the directors Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb on a global quest to find and film great white sharks. Even today, 50 years later, with sharks a familiar sight from our sofas, the footage the Taylors eventually succeeded in shooting is gripping.
A scene where they film hundreds of oceanic whitetips feeding on a whale carcass – outside of a dive cage, for the first time ever – is especially hair-raising. The Taylors are surrounded on all sides by sharks, fending them off with their hands.
Eventually, Valerie emerges at the surface, euphoric. “I nearly went berserk when I came out of the water,” she says, now 78, from her home in Sydney. “We’d done the impossible – and survived.”
The New York Times’s review of Gimbel’s film, Blue Water, White Death, praised the “extraordinary beauty” of the underwater sequences. This, however, was the tagline for the poster: “The most smashing man-against-beast footage ever filmed.”
For as long as humans have been able to photograph the oceans, we have sought to capture their most fearsome resident. The desire for shark footage long predates Jaws. But how to obtain it?
Men Among Sharks, the 1947 film by the pioneering Austrian diver Hans Hass, shows him illegally blasting shoals of fish with dynamite to attract sharks. In his memoir, Hass described luring them by pretending to flee – “awakening the instinct in every beast of prey”.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau, meanwhile, was experimenting with capturing the underwater world (using a camera sealed inside a modified preserve jar), and how to extend his time below the surface. In 1943, he trialled the first prototype aqualung.
In his 1953 bestseller The Silent World, co-written with Frederic Dumas, Cousteau shared photographs of “the beast”, an oceanic whitetip, coming straight for him: “Then I bang his nose with the camera.” In 1956, Cousteau and film-makerLouis Malle made a film of the same title that combined colour footage with swashbuckling bravado, including the on-screen slaughter of several sharks.
National Geographic photographer David Doubilet, now 73, remembers “submerging into that film like a dream”, aged 10. Inspired, he made his own underwater camera by stuffing his Brownie Hawkeye into a rubber anaesthesia rebreathing bag. (He calls the resulting photographs “beyond abstract”.)
Later, in the 1960s, he used a setup so primitive that he was forced make a tradeoff between controlling focus or light levels. Doubilet learned to rely on light, composition and “the decisive moment”. “Underwater photography was a battle,” he says. “You could ‘see’ the image you wanted to make, but the technology was not there to make it.”
Ron Taylor shot his first underwater footage on 16mm film, using a wind-up camera in a waterproof housing. “All the action could be happening, and he couldn’t do a thing because he had to rewind the camera,” says Valerie. (Ron died from leukaemia in 2012, aged 78.)
The couple had met through competitive spearfishing in 1962; Ron asked Valerie to model in his images, as Hass’s wife, Lotte, had also done. Taylor notes in her memoir, An Adventurous Life, the Jaws poster doesn’t “show a middle-aged man”.
Ron and Valerie became partners in life and work, selling film of their underwater encounters to Movietone for its newsreels (at GBP25 a pop, good money at the time) then, later, to television channels in the US and Australia. Sharks proved the moneymaker of the pair’s nascent business, with networks taking any footage they could get – especially if the animals appeared dangerous.
“Sharks would sell, and we had to make a living,” says Taylor. So they played up the drama. In their 1965 Movietone film Revenge for Victim of Shark Attack, a man bitten by a great white shows off his scarring – then triumphantly shoots a placid nurse shark.
A roll of film ran out after about two minutes; Ron, skin-diving, needed to surface for air after one minute. “It was a slow, hard process,” says Taylor. “We’d spend all day in and out of the boat. I had the job of keeping the sharks around with bait.”
Today, baiting is condemned, at least by documentary film-makers, for altering wild animals’ behaviour – though both Taylor and Doubilet say it is still common (not to mention a cornerstone of tourism operations).
“You would be lucky to see a shark without bait,” says Taylor. Like Cousteau, she later condemned the bloodshed of their first films, but at the time there was no mainstream comprehension of how ecosystems operated. “If you believe the media, all sharks are killers – and in the early days, we did,” says Taylor. “There was no one else to tell us.”
After the success of Revenge for Victim of Shark Attack, Ron went to South Australia looking for even more exciting sharks. It was there, in 1966, that he took the first-ever film of a great white, by dipping his camera (and his head and shoulders) into the water as the shark attacked a bait.
In 1970, Gimbel hired the Taylors to make Blue Water, White Death, featuring the footage of the couple surrounded by the throng of feeding oceanic whitetip sharks. It was one of the most exciting dives of her life, says Valerie, but also one of the most reckless. She and Ron had studied accounts of ships torpedoed in the second world war, and learned that the survivors had one thing in common: they had overwhelmingly responded to a shark’s exploratory “bump” with aggression. “We knew that if they bumped us, we would bump them back harder,” says Taylor. “If you resist sharks they will not bite you,” confirms Doubilet – “but you’ve gotta pay attention.”
As the pack of sharks attacked the whale carcass, the Taylors jostled for their place in the water. But visibility through all the blood was poor, and a passing shark knocked out Ron’s mouthpiece delivering compressed air. He managed to grab the cage before he lost consciousness. “That’s the closest he’d ever come to dying from a shark attack,” Valerie says.
Back on the boat, reviewing the footage, they marvelled that no one had been bitten – though the Taylors had an agreement in case of a bite: keep the camera rolling. “Stay nice and still, and make him let go – and hope that somebody’s filming,” is Valerie’s advice today. (Her own most serious injury came later, from diving with more than 40 blue and mako sharks each up to 2.5 metres long. She had been luring them with mackerel towards Ron’s lens; the bite to her leg required 300 stitches and plastic surgery.)
The poster for Blue Water, White Death showed Ron’s shot of the great white rearing towards the camera under the banner: MAN-EATER. “And the world said, ‘Whoa’,” says Doubilet.
The film proved a formative influence on the film-maker James Cameron and the Jaws author, Peter Benchley. Mark Brownlow, executive producer at the BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, which made Blue Planet and Blue Planet II, describes it as a seminal film for him as a young “shark nut” (though he also makes it clear he doesn’t condone the methods).
The excitement of the Taylors’ dead whale sequence, says Brownlow, “wasn’t about getting a new understanding about white shark biology. It traded on the danger and excitement of divers getting close to sharks.”
When Steven Spielberg asked the the couple to shoot the live-action scenes for Jaws, they asked for $2m (GBP1.6m), anticipating that it would take more than a year. “You can’t make a shark do what you want it to do,” says Valerie, who body doubled for Richard Dreyfuss in the film. The scene of the shark getting tangled in the cage, used in the film’s dramatic climax, was a fluke, she says.
On release in 1975, the monstrous, mostly animatronic predator of Jaws nonetheless inspired enduring fear and fascination for the real animals. In the 1980s, as scuba diving and underwater photography became more accessible – not least with the advent of digital cameras – the diver Stuart Cove had the idea to put a price on an encounter.
Growing up in the Bahamas, Cove was a lifelong scuba fanatic and spearfisher – but he had been terrified of sharks until he was hired to wrangle them for the 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only.
This involved catching sharks on baited longlines, transporting them by boat to the shooting location, releasing them “strategically”, says Cove – then catching them for the next take. “Half a dozen shark catchers would be ready to jump on [a shark’s] back and slow it down for it to be recaptured. We would do that several times a day.”
Crew who worked with sharks were paid an extra $150 per day. The promise of “money and fame” inspired Cove to focus his Nassau dive business on sharks. Now his eponymous operation takes in celebrities’ diver certification, personal submersibles, spectator shark feeding and film production, from documentaries to B-movies.
“When I first started diving with sharks, I got so much flak,” says Cove. “Now everybody’s feeding them, all over the world.”
The contribution of shark tourism to the Bahamas’ economy, an estimated $800m over the past 20 years, was instrumental to the prohibition, in 2011, of commercial fishing of more than 40 shark species in Bahamian waters. Now shark tourism is booming globally.
The potential harms (for example, of sharks coming to associate people with food) are outweighed by the benefits, Doubilet believes – not least by allowing people to connect with a predator: “Tourism dollars save species.”
Sharks’ negative image has been shown to be a factor in their being overlooked, historically, in conservation efforts. Cove notes the paradox of his operation: “We are very conservation-oriented, yet for the Hollywood business, we make them look scary as hell … People don’t want to see nice sharks, they want to see blood and gore.”
Indeed, in testing their early prototypes for a chainmail suit to allow more hands-on footage (a type of equipment still in use today, including by Cove and the BBC), the Taylors found the sharks so reluctant to attack that Valerie had to force her arm into their mouths.
It reflects a paradox of filming sharks: making an animal that is not inclined to bite people look like it is hell-bent on doing so. In 2009, the skateboarder Rob Dyrdek requested that Cove facilitate a “shark attack” to film for his reality show. Even wearing chainmail and baited, it was “hard as hell to get the shark to bite”, says Cove, though “everything worked out great” eventually.
Of more than 1,000 shark species, Taylor says, “only about seven are potentially dangerous. The rest are all sweethearts.” Divers were among the first to recognise sharks’ generally shy nature, and their importance to ocean ecosystems.
Even through the 1960s, the Taylors noticed coral reefs degrading, mostly through overfishing. In 1972, they made their first film with an overt conservation angle, on plummeting populations of grey nurse sharks, only six years after killing one on camera. But sharks were so little studied at the time that even their early work, shot exclusively for entertainment, informed scientific understanding. In a similar way, a 2014 study of sharks in the Aegean gleaned new insights from Hass’s 1942 expedition that led to his 1947 film.
More recently, the success of Blue Planet II in 2017 – enabled by new technology such as “rebreathers” that allowed dives to last up to three hours – proved that audiences now want to understand sharks in their complexity, says Brownlow. Twelve scientific papers were published as a result of the series.
Social media, too, has helped to redeem sharks’ public image. The environmentalist and model Ocean Ramsey has amassed 1.1 million followers on Instagram for her photos of herself free-diving with great whites, while photographers Thomas Peschak and Paul Hilton highlight the shark-finning trade – showing where the threat in human-shark conflict really lies.
Taylor, Doubilet and Brownlow all agree that the biggest change they have observed in a combined century of filming sharks, is the depletion in their populations. In three years of exploring Indonesian reefs, Doubilet saw only three sharks.
“It’s not ‘shark bites man’, it’s ‘man bites shark’,” he says. Blue sharks in the northern Atlantic endure ceaseless, industrial-level slaughter; the fact they still exist there is testament to how much we still don’t know about the ocean, he says.
The majority of the world’s oceans, after all, are without light – meaning that the next frontier of underwater photography is how to capture images through ultrasound or sonar, says Doubilet. The thought of what might be found in those “dark zones” will, undoubtedly, be an incentive for the next generation of shark cinematographers to achieve it – whatever the danger.
Cousteau once told a story about working with Luis Marden, a pioneering National Geographic photographer, in the Red Sea in the mid-1950s. When the water around the boat suddenly erupted with dozens of frenzied, feeding sharks, Cousteau recalled, he had to physically restrain Marden to stop him from jumping in with his camera.
Cousteau said he wasn’t sure what chilled him most: the sharks’ fury, or the photographer shrieking: “The picture of my life!”
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