Below the shallow waters of the northeast coast of Australia is the world’s largest reef.
Covering more than 1,600 miles (2,575 km), the Great Barrier Reef shelters over 1,000 different fish species. Sea turtles, dolphins, humpback whales, sea snakes and sharks glide through this underwater paradise – one of the world’s most complex and fragile natural ecosystems.
Many people have dived in these waters, but few know them like Australian marine conservationist and shark enthusiast Valerie Taylor.
Valerie and her late husband, Ron Taylor, were among the first to explore the Great Barrier Reef on film. In 1967, the couple partnered with the Belgian Scientific Expedition and spent six months filming its underwater habitats.
In 1974, Hollywood came calling and the Taylors filmed live shark sequences for Steven Spielberg’s iconic thriller Jaws – a decision that would come back to haunt them.
Horrified by how Jaws hardened public attitudes towards sharks the couple changed their lives forever and turned their attention to conservationism.
“[Universal Studios] took Ron and I to the US and we did every talk show in America telling people it was a fictitious story, that sharks don’t behave that way and on and on,” said Taylor. “It was ignorance and lack of respect for wildlife.”
Over the course of her career as a conservationist, her efforts have succeeded in protecting marine life and underwater environments.
Taylor was instrumental in getting sea lions protected in New South Wales in 1971. In 2012, South Australia renamed the Neptune Islands Group Marine Park after the Taylors because of their work protecting the oceans.
But despite her life’s work, sharks remain at risk from human activities that are threatening a creature that has stalked the oceans for more than 400 million years.
A global issue
Scientists say around 100 million sharks are killed globally each year and more than a quarter of the world’s shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, targeted for their fins, a delicacy in some Asian countries.
Sharks play a vital role in maintaining the biodiversity of our oceans. As top predators, they help to preserve marine ecosystems by regulating species populations, providing food for scavengers, and balancing the distribution and diversity of other predators.
“Sharks are a part of the web of life,” said Valerie Taylor. “I’ve seen the return of sharks over 12 years bring a dead reef back to life.”
Taylor, now 83 years old, still dives frequently, writes letters and speaks on protecting coastal and international waters as sanctuaries and keeping plastics out of the ocean.
“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.”
Over the course of her career, her efforts have inspired the next generation of conservationists to work to make the oceans cleaner and healthier.
Today, others, like Australian Madison Stewart – or “Shark Girl Madison” as she’s known on Instagram – are following in Taylor’s flipper prints to raise awareness of the risks facing sea life and the need for sustainable practices in oceans.
A new ‘Shark Girl’ rides the same wave
Stewart, or “Pip” as her friends call her, wore a yellow ribbon in her hair as a child because Valerie Taylor did. For as long as she can remember, she’s looked up to Taylor.
Growing up on a yacht on the Gold Coast, Stewart started to get into underwater photography, which turned into a passion to save the oceans.
Now 26, Stewart has amassed thousands of followers on social media by posting daring photos showing her swimming with huge sharks. Using that social influence, Stewart started a project in East Lombok, Indonesia, to encourage a local fishing community to go from catching sharks to preserving them as a tourist attraction.
Project Hiu (“Hiu” meaning shark in Indonesian) uses shark fishing boats instead for tourism, which allows the fishermen to make more money to support their families, and keeps the sharks in the ocean. Tourists who visit East Lombok also surf, free dive, go hiking and visit the local village, bringing more money to the local economy, she explained.
Indonesia is one of the world’s largest exporters of shark and ray products including fins, meat, liver oil and skin.
Consumption of shark fin delicacies has declined by as much as 80% in some Asian countries, but is growing in others. Overall the number of sharks being killed each year is still staggering. Some scientists say the number reaches far beyond 100 million with estimates ranging up to 273 million.
Stewart knows that a program in one small village isn’t going to save the world’s sharks, but says “My whole intention with this project was to prove and spark a mentality amongst conservationists that we should not be condemning these fishermen in less developed nations, we should be working with them.”
Stewart credits Taylor for being her biggest inspiration in marine conservation.
“She proved that you don’t have to be a scientist to make a difference,” Stewart said. “I like the way she engages the public in what she does, and I like the way she’s just a totally fearless, badass woman in an era where that was rare.”
The two met on the filming of “Blue,” an environment protection documentary released in 2017. Stewart hopes she can inspire others in the way that Taylor inspired her.
“My biggest hope is that I can inspire other people that are younger than me that might grow up and see how it is for one person to make a difference,” she said.
This article has been updated to correct the description of the location of the Great Barrier Reef.