Valerie May Taylor
Valerie May Heighes
9 November 1935
|Occupation(s)||Professional diver, underwater photographer and cinematographer, author/illustrator|
(m. 1963; died 2012)
Valerie May Taylor AM (born 9 November 1935) is a conservationist, photographer and filmmaker, and an inaugural member of the diving hall-of-fame. With her husband Ron Taylor, she made documentaries about sharks, and filmed sequences for films including Jaws (1975).
Born in Paddington, Sydney on 9 November 1935, Taylor spent her early years in Sydney. Her mother was a housewife and her father an engineer for Exide Batteries. The family moved to New Zealand in 1939 to set up a battery factory there, but were unable to return to Australia when WWII broke out. At 12 years of age Taylor contracted polio during the 1948 polio epidemic. Isolated from her family, friends and schooling she slowly recovered with the support of the ‘Sister Kenny Treatment and Rehabilitation Method’. Taylor fell behind in her studies and left school at 15 years of age to work for the NZ Film Unit drawing for an animation studio.
Taylor returned to Sydney with her family to settle in the beach side suburb of Port Hacking where she started diving in 1956 and took up spearfishing in 1960 to provide food for the family. She became an Australian champion scuba and spearfisher and met her future husband, Ron Taylor, at the St George's Spearfishing Club. They married in December 1963.
In 1967 a Belgian scientific expedition asked the Taylors' to join their endeavour to record life on the Great Barrier Reef. Over several months, Valerie dove the entire length of the Great Barrier Reef from Lady Elliot Island up to the Torres Strait. Taylor and her husband made documentary films about sharks, and were the first people to film great white sharks without the protection of a cage. Their work also included Blue Water, White Death in which they swam cageless among a school of oceanic white tip sharks feeding on a whale carcass. The documentary was successful, and attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, who called on them to shoot the real great white shark sequences for Jaws.
In addition to their work in film, the Taylors have performed conservation work in Australia and elsewhere. They have campaigned to prevent oil exploration in Ningaloo Marine Park, the overturning of mining rights on Coral Sea Islands, the protection of the Great Barrier Reef prior to its being awarded World Heritage status, and they have lobbied for marine sanctuary zones in South Australia.
Taylor has worked as an underwater photographer, and work has appeared in National Geographic Magazine, including some macro images of coral and invertebrates on the Great Barrier Reef that were featured on its front cover in 1973.
During the early 1980s Taylor began experiments with sharks wearing a steel mesh suit. The 1981 front cover of National Geographic magazine featured Taylor, off the coast of California, during one of these experiments with Blue sharks wearing this chainmail suit.
In 1981 Taylor was awarded the NOGI award for Arts, Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences, presented by the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences (AUAS).
In 1986, Taylor was appointed by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, the 'Rider of the Order of the Golden Ark' for marine conservation. She was recognised for her successful efforts protecting of the habitat of the potato cod near Lizard Island – the first gazetted protection of the Great Barrier Reef.
She was awarded the 1997 American Nature Photographer of the year award for a picture of a whale shark swimming with her nephew in Ningaloo Marine Park. By 2000 she was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
At 66 years old she was still diving with sharks and was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society in marine conservation and the Australian Senior Achiever of the Year. In 2008 Taylor received the Australian Geographic Lifetime of Conservation award.
In 2010 Taylor was awarded an AM For service to conservation and the environment as an advocate for the protection and preservation of marine wildlife and habitats, particularly the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef, and as an underwater cinematographer and photographer.
Taylor's husband Ron died from leukemia in 2012. Taylor remained active in lobbying in favour of marine conservation. She has illustrated and written a children's book, campaigned against ocean plastic pollution overfishing and published her memoirs. In 2014, Valerie campaigned against an Opposition Bill to remove sanctuary zones from marine parks in South Australia.