Valerie Taylor isn’t a name or a person I knew of before watching this documentary. In fact, I was reading through a “Best Documentaries of 2021” list and Playing with Sharks appeared and as someone who enjoys nature documentaries, I thought I’d give it a go. As a Brit the two most famous nature/conservationist people I immediately think of are David Attenborough and Jane Goodall so it was interesting to learn about Australian Valerie Taylor and her husband Ron, their lives and their work with sharks and all marine life.
The fascinating thing to me that was mentioned by one of the scientists featured in Playing with Sharks is that it’s not uncommon for people who were hunters to become conservationists. It’s like those who can see the worst in how people treat nature can then strive to change that as they deeply know both sides of it. In the 1950s Valerie would go spearfishing and she, like everyone else at that time, just believed you could take what you wanted from the ocean as there would always be plenty there. Over time she changed her mind about that and killing creatures and from that she became passionate about learning all she could about them.
Using her camera rather than her spear Valerie captured amazing footage and the fact that she, a young pretty blonde woman, would be in these images too, touching sharks and swimming with them made the images all the more striking. It’s impressive that pretty much all the things we know today about sharks and their behaviour came from Valerie’s work with them.
Playing with Sharks is a bit formulaic with talking heads from different scientists and fellow divers but there’s something so wonderful about a female marine biologist saying that Valerie Taylor was her idol. The use of archival footage of Valerie and Rod going out to sea to take pictures and videos of sharks as well as the interviews they did after the release of Jaws follow the timeline of their lives while the Valerie today recounts what she remembers and how she felt about things.
Playing with Sharks is a really interesting and hopeful documentary. It shows how people wrongly fear these magnificent creatures and all the work Valerie Taylor has done in order to protect them and make people put aside their misconceptions about them. What she’s achieved in her life is inspiring and the footage they captured, in the 1960s and 70s especially is wonderful. 4/5.