The new National Geographic/Disney+ documentary Playing with Sharks pulls off the rare feat of being thrilling and moving. Such a multivalent tone is, in fact, pitch perfect for an examination of humankind’s fraught relationship with sharks. The emotional high point of Sally Aitken’s film about Australian spearfisher-turned-shark-advocate Valerie Taylor comes when Taylor feeds a great white shark by hand. Standing on a boat in the middle of the ocean, she holds a fish and a behemoth shark likely weighing multiple tons gingerly takes it from her hand. Were the shark to strain his head just a few inches, he would have taken the hand as well. But he didn’t.
“I wanted to show all sharks have different personalities, and I’ve never seen anybody hand-feeding a great white shark off the back of a boat,” Taylor says in the new documentary, which is streaming on Disney+ as of Friday. “There were three sharks around and one was very sweet. I wanted to give that nice shark—he was a boy shark—my fish.” And so she did.
By doing this all on camera, Taylor was actively seeking to dispel a myth that she helped facilitate, albeit indirectly: that sharks, especially great whites, are mindless killing machines. Alongside her husband Ron, Taylor staged and shot footage that ended up in the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, which has been credited with setting off a frenzy of shark killing by sport hunters and misguided oceanic vigilantes who are attempting to protect humankind from their would-be predators.
Taylor’s atonement for her past roughly follows the same arc as the greater culture’s—while undoubtedly many still feel that sharks pose grave danger to bathing humans (a recent story about the science community’s push to rebrand “shark attacks” as encounters was roundly mocked online, including by Jezebel sister site the AV Club), more people than ever are aware that it’s actually humans that pose the greater danger to shark populations, not the other way around. In Playing with Sharks, an absolutely staggering figure is quoted: for decades, people have been killing up to 100 million sharks per year. This is not merely inhumane, but potentially poses grave danger to our own well-being, as eradicating apex predators could have cataclysmic effects on the global food chain.
Playing with Sharks traces Taylor’s history as a rare woman spearfisher in Australia. Though she did kill a shark (just one she says), early on, in a revolutionary stance that she may have been among the first people on earth to take, she decided that sharks weren’t nearly as dangerous as their reputation suggested and that one could play around with them. She and her similarly inclined eventual husband Ron quit spearfishing after he set out on an expedition to hunt great whites in the ’60s (as a woman, Valerie was disallowed from attending the hunt). When the ship returned with five great whites, all about 10 to 14 feet in length, “I thought it was sad,” Taylor says. “Really changed the way I looked at the world and spearfishing.” Ron came to realize that killing fish upset him as well, and so the couple pivoted from shooting with spears to cameras. They started selling footage to TV stations.
“They wouldn’t just buy any underwater film,” recalls Taylor.” They wanted dangerous marine animals, or what they thought were dangerous. They wanted drama.” Playing with Sharks is packed with vintage footage of Taylor absolutely wilding underwater. She swims through a school of jellyfish, picks up a sea snake, pets moray eels, and of course, plays with sharks, whom she realized early on were more trainable than dogs through food rewards. There’s an utter lack of preciousness in her approach in that archival footage, and at 85, the still-diving Taylor seems to have lost none of her nerve. Her activism has only intensified.
But she’s been preaching her gospel of mutual respect for the shark—particularly the “great beast” that is the great white—for decades. After Jaws was released and created a sensation, Valerie and Ron Taylor went on a media tour (on Universal Studios’ dime) to dispel the myth of the maneater. “It’s more dangerous to have a backyard pool,” Valerie Taylor pointed on one talk show. Her message didn’t take, as plenty of difficult-to-watch footage of shark slaughter in Playing with Sharks attests. It’s a real roller coaster, watching people pull these creatures out of the water one minute and watching Valerie and Ron rescue a great white who’s tangled in fishing line in the next.
Taylor successfully petitioned to have the grey nurse shark—a docile species—protected and advocates for protected national marine parks to help preserve shark populations. “Maybe I’m a bit funny actually,” she says early on in this captivating documentary, as if she’s just realizing how her devotion to sharks is coming off. Maybe we could all use some of Taylor’s funniness. When she describes nature as having made the perfect animal—one that’s been on this planet for millions of years—she isn’t talking about humans. Her message comes through loud and clear.