Sharks and Chainmail Valerie Taylor: Women in Ocean Science

Shark Stewards Women History Month Guest Blog: Valerie Taylor

By Justyne Trieste, Shark Stewards Team

I watched Jaws for the first time as a kid, with my dad. He cautioned me it might be too scary, but I wasn’t scared of the shark- I was enthralled. That fascination never left and has brought me to many pieces of media much better for sharks than Jaws, but Jaws in addition to all the horror the film brought for sharks, helped bring prominence to the career of a remarkable woman who has worked tirelessly to document and save sharks. Valerie Taylor is a trailblazer and an inspiration to women who love the ocean, myself included. 

Valerie Taylor Testing the Famous Chainmail Suit (Image Courtesy Playing With Sharks, Dogwoof Productions)

Playing With Sharks

I love this picture because wearing a chainmail suit in addition to your wetsuit is incredible, and you can see she’s not in fear as the graceful shark comes in to investigate. What’s there to be afraid of when you have your chainmail and your wetsuit on?

Before Jaws, there was the documentary Blue Water, White Death (1971). I remember learning this documentary was one of the first to get underwater video of sharks and when I learned one of the pioneers featured was a woman, I had to see it. I found a copy on DVD, and I remember watching the footage, transfixed. 1971 was before the devastating legacy of Jaws, but was still a  time when sharks were still demonized and feared and to make a film like this, featuring a female diver and videographer is an important part of her legacy. I admired the courage of Valerie Taylor to get in unknown conditions to film large predators, likely unsure of their reaction, and the spirit of adventure and discovery that clearly drove her.

“Sadly, right now it’ll never be how it should be. We’ve really made a bad impact, but it can be rectified. Not everywhere but in some places,” she said.“I’m not speaking of something I’ve read or seen on the computer,” she added. “I’m speaking from something I know and that I’ve seen. My own experience. And I know that gets across.”

Valerie Taylor

As I learned more about Valerie, I learned she’d been diving and spearfishing/freediving since the 1950s. Looking at the amazing footage she was part of and seeing her in the water with these gorgeous, powerful animals made me start to think “maybe I can do that too!” I took inspiration some years later, getting scuba certified at a shop owned for the past 30 years by another badass (coldwater!) female diver, and have been on several adventures swimming with sharks (not even close to the adventures Taylor has had, but at 85 and still diving, she is clearly at levels most of the rest of us will never reach, but can aspire to).

The author snorkeling with leopard sharks in La Jolla, California (USA)

There are many things to admire about Taylor, but to me, her most admirable trait is her strong and sustained pivot and commitment to shark conservation, her awareness and her hope.

Of the many passionate, brilliant, and innovative women who work with sharks (many, but not nearly enough), Taylor is one who holds a fascination for me as her work bridges communities- scientific, conservation, and pop culture. She’s a pioneer in many areas, and an inspiration across the board. I’m inspired by the women I see working with Shark Stewards, and all those little girls out there like myself who had a transformative moment watching a shark movie that turned into a lifelong fascination. I’m grateful for all Valerie Taylor has shared with us, and continues to share with us for and the way she’s made the underwater world and her experiences seem approachable.

Valerie Taylor and Reef Sharks ((Image Courtesy Playing With Sharks, Dogwoof Productions)

Learn more about Valerie by watching the film Playing With Sharks.