Ask Australian Valerie Taylor to share her job title only if you’re ready for a long pause. The 77-year-old is hardly being coy. Hers is a career requiring many hyphens: spearfishing-champion-cum-cinematographer-cum-conservationist. For the record, she’s also a photographer, a painter and an adviser to the Australian Minister of Fisheries. With so many credits to her name, her eventual answer is endearingly simple: “I’m a diver.”
Q: What has been your most memorable in-water encounter?
A: I thought I was going to die when we were filming Blue Water, White Death. A pack of 200 oceanic whitetips surrounded our boat; we’d been trailing a Norwegian whaling vessel and it had just made a kill. I could see the sharks’ feeding frenzy around the sperm whale, but I didn’t care.
Q: Obviously you survived.
A: The sharks made a place for us in the pack. Eventually they accepted us as other marine animals that came to feed on the whale.
Q: Were your nerves running high?
A: I don’t get scared; I just get excited. I would do it again tomorrow. Nothing can replace sheer unadulterated adventure.
Q: So what’s the hardest part of filming sharks?
A: Now, it’s finding them.
Q: One of your earliest conservation feats was protecting Cod Hole. What was the story there?
A: For starters, I have to point out that they’re actually grouper. I met that particular fish in 1969 while filming Blue Water, White Death, and had to look it up in a fish identification book — I’d never seen one before. After that, those of us who dove there would keep informal tabs on the population whenever we visited that site. In 1982, my friend and captain Peter Bristow told us when seven of the 20 that he regularly saw there went missing. That’s when I realized the area had to be protected. The big battle started.
Q: Tell me about the opposition.
A: Some people don’t want to see anything protected. Fishermen then gave the same story they do now — that they will go broke and their kids will starve. With this fight, one told me that [the potato cod] come up to his boat anywhere on the reef. I told him that I would give him $10,000 if he would take me with him to see this wonder. Of course I didn’t have the money, but I knew I didn’t need it.
Q: You don’t give up. What’s the secret behind making conservation work?
A: Get your story straight and your facts right, and then go on TV. The opposition will attack you, but they always lie. Then you’ve got them.
Congratulations to Taylor for winning the Legend of the Sea award at the 2013 Beneath the Sea Expo held in Secaucus, New Jersey (beneaththesea.org).