DIVER salutes Ron Taylor, diver, pioneer underwater filmmaker and champion of our ocean world
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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 vested 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 spotlighted 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.
Tribute from Jean-Michel Cousteau
It is with my deepest sadness to hear of the passing of a wonderful shark conservationist, a true ocean warrior and a vital ocean protector, Ron Taylor.
Ron, along with his wife Valerie, helped transform the image of the most feared animal in the ocean, the Great White Shark, into an animal that deserves our utmost respect and protection.
Through Ron’s global reputation as shark protector in Australia, Ron’s images captured the spirit of awe and wonder of these magnificent creatures. Known by many as simply ‘the shark man’, Ron had a passion for bringing to life through his beautiful imagery, these rarely seen ‘lonely lords of the sea,’ and helped educate the general public about the importance of shark conservation, not only in Australia, but all around the world.
Ron Taylor was a former champion spear fisherman and avid diver, who turned to conserving and filming marine life after an underwater epiphany.
“I just thought, ‘what am I doing down here killing these poor, defenseless marine creatures?’ he told the ABC in 2005.
“So I just packed up, went home – didn’t even weigh my fish in – and never went back to another spearfishing competition.
“At the same time I was doing my photography. I was trying to get close to the fish to capture beautiful images with a still camera and a movie camera.”
In the early 1970s Ron and Valerie, joined one of our educational programs in Papua New Guinea. He contributed to our filming effort and enchanted our students with his sensitive approach to documenting reef life. Then in 1986 Ron and Valerie assisted the Cousteau team filming white sharks off of Southern Australia for the TV special and for the book “Great White Shark.” Since first working with Ron, it was obvious his love and passion for marine life, particularly sharks, was admirable and contagious.
Ron and Valerie went on to film numerous documentaries on sharks and marine life and in 2003, Ron Taylor was named a Member of the Order of Australia, one of Australia’s highest civilian honors, for his conservation work.
Ron’s life-long work helped heighten the awareness that sharks are not mindless predators, nor sinister man-eaters; but rather complex animals who play important roles in helping maintain a balance in healthy ocean ecosystems.
My dear friend Ron, you will be missed dearly, but your message and love for the sea will be carried on by all those who had the good fortune of diving by your side.
And to you Valerie, may we offer our loving condolences and lend our global support. Ron’s spirit will live on in all those who fight for the protection of sharks and our blue planet.
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