DIVER salutes Ron Taylor, diver, pioneer underwater filmmaker and champion of our ocean world
The world diving community has lost a charter member with the death September 9 of Australian underwater filmmaker Ron Taylor, at age 78. In partnership with his wife Valerie, Taylor focused his life work on ocean conservation principally through film and photography that earned him countless accolades and awards, not least being invested as a Member of the Order of Australia.
Born in 1934, Taylor became a diver in the early days of the sport and like many natural swimmers drawn to the underwater world back then he demonstrated a talent for spearfishing, which earned him four consecutive national championships and, representing Australia in 1965, the world spearfishing championship.
This quiet and thoughtful man will be remembered, however, for his body of film work that served to focus public attention on the marine world, its conservancy, and notably on sharks – especially the Great White shark – as fascinating oceanic predators worthy of our respect and protection.
To say that Ron, and Valerie, married in 1963, were beloved in their native Australia is understatement. They were the pre-eminent diving duo in their country with ‘rock star’ status, a celebrity they leveraged to allay the fears of a public wary of the sharks that, increasingly, they came to better understand, admire and champion.
The son of a professional photographer, Ron Taylor learned the art and craft of image making before becoming a diver in 1952. His interest in underwater movie making grew after he built a watertight housing for his father’s 8mm home movie camera. That initiative foreshadowed a talent that served him well throughout his career. He was inventive designing and fabricating the many customized camera housings used to shoot an impressive catalog of films.
Playing with Sharks was his first commercial effort in 1962, screened in cinemas by Movietone News when television was in its infancy. Next he sold Shark Hunters to network television in Australia and America, which garnered wide attention and confirmed his place as a skilled professional with an eye for dramatic action – read sharks – that warmed the hearts of ratings obsessed TV and movie executives.
Taylor’s filmography is long and varied. Over decades he shot documentaries, television series and movies and contributed film footage to big screen theatrical films. These are too many to enumerate although an unofficial listing accompanies this text for quick reference and to better appreciate Taylor’s decades long contribution showcasing the marine world to a global audience.
Another high profile turning point for Ron and Valerie came in the late 1960s when American department store heir Peter Gimbel hired them along with fellow underwater cameraman Stan Waterman, to shoot his cinéma vérité style documentary Blue Water, White Death. They were well suited to the task: Ron behind his camera, Valerie in front. The six-month shoot was a hunt for the Great White shark, the film’s subtitle, which culminated in success when they finally found and filmed the elusive animals off south Australia. The film was a mega hit breaking box office records for a documentary and grossing revenues that ranked it second only to Love Story, the global hit released the previous year. A DVD of this milestone shark movie was recently released.
In no time Hollywood came knocking. In 1974 a talented but unknown young director by the name of Stephen Spielberg contracted Ron to shoot footage for his big screen production JAWS. The final cut contains his dramatic footage of a ‘malevolent’ Great White doing its best to get at a fearful diver in a shark cage that was made small and housed a small stunt man to make the real White shark look as big as the mechanical version used in the surface scenes.
Though his contributions to big screen movies are many, Taylor said he preferred documentary filmmaking and there are examples aplenty of his ability in this genre. Among those focused on familiar ‘turf’ are his widely acclaimed Australian films Wreck of the Yongala and The Great Barrier Reef, which spotlight what’s arguably Australia’s most celebrated shipwreck and the premier reef system on the planet.
Taylor also innovated the chain mail-like anti-shark bite suit that was featured in film and also on the cover of National Geographic Magazine. For his invaluable contributions to the marine world and diving, Ron Taylor has received deserving awards, many in tandem with his wife Valerie, and not surprisingly, their celebrity put them in front of the camera lens, as the subject of documentaries that include The Sea Lovers and In the Shadow of the Shark. Our community is poorer for his loss.
Click here for a brief but interesting look at Ron’s filmography on IMDB.
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