VALERIE TAYLOR OAM: UNDERWATER ICON

“Darling,” Valerie starts to say, “I've had my life, and I've had the best lot of anybody I know. I have lived through the best time that's ever been on this planet.” And she’s right. With rich coral landscapes and abundant sea creatures, Valerie and her husband Ron travelled the world over, capturing the most beautiful marine life and seascapes. In 2010 Valerie became a member of the Order of Australia for her work in conserving marine animals and their habitats. At 88 years old, she is still advocating for the conservation of our oceans and the marine life that inhabit them.

Featuring as the face of our launch campaign for National Geographic Wear, Valerie embodies what it means to be a pioneering voice and creative in the world of conservation. We spoke to her about her journey, barely scraping the surface of her wonderous and adventure-filled life.

What is your first memory of the ocean?
Valerie Taylor: “Just paddling on the edge of the water at the beach. I was never taught to swim, which made it a bit difficult when we came back to Australia from New Zealand. We were in New Zealand during the world war. Everybody was swimming in Australia. I could only do a bit of dog paddle and a bit of breaststroke, so I went to learn and soon found I was hopeless. To this day I'm not a swimmer. I'm a diver. And there's one hell of a difference.”

How did you feel the first time you went diving?
VT: “Well, I first started snorkelling. The first time I went down was scuba: I was flying, there was no gravity I was flying. I was flying through the water not air, but the feeling is the same. And I've been flying ever since.”

In all your years of diving, are there any diving locations or experiences that stand out to you?
VT: “There are many locations that stand out. Perhaps, the dive I like the best was diving with the Australian Sea Lions in South Australia. It's wonderful to go down and be loved by a beautiful animal, all hugs and sort of kisses. Especially when we treat them so harshly, they don't bear a grudge. For sheer beauty - unadulterated beauty and excitement – I’d say Raja Ampat. And if I could do one more dive in my life, it would be in the Bahamas with the tiger sharks.”

I’ve heard some divers say Tiger sharks are like puppies.
VT: “They’re like big kittens. I just pat them. They’re not in my opinion, when you’re underwater dangerous. It's when you’re thrashing around on the surface like a wounded animal, they come in to bite.”

Is that why surfers have these experiences with sharks?
VT: “Yes, you attract attention to yourself. I always tell people when they ask me what to do, I say stay still. Don’t move. Hope someone else moves.”

What's the most beautiful thing you’ve seen underwater?
VT: “Static or moving?”

Let's do both.
VT: “The most beautiful coral scenery I've ever seen is in Raja Ampat, up near the equator. It has very warm water and is known as the richest area for marine life in the world. The temperature of the water is about 29 to 30 degrees, so you don't really need a wetsuit. I go there because I have arthritis, and I'm very comfortable in the water there.”

And moving?
VT: “A school of manta rays, yes.”

Who was your biggest advocate when you first picked up a camera?
VT: “My husband Ron. He built the housing for the camera, and he showed me how to do it. He was very, very intelligent.” 

And speaking of capturing marine life, you're also an artist what do you like to paint?
VT: “I can pretty much paint anything I can see. When you say what do I like to paint? I paint the marine world because that’s what is expected of me. Often, I paint fantasy and mermaids. And sometimes I might just pick an iris, and paint that.”

National Geographic 1981 cover by Valerie & Ron Taylor

The ocean and all its creatures have obviously had a profound effect on you. What made sharks stand out to you as a species?
VT: “They have a presence in the water, and you certainly know it.”

What is one thing you wish everybody knew about sharks?
VT: “That they’re nowhere near as dangerous as the media would have you believe. The thing that I find disturbing is the misconception of what sharks are really like. The Grey Nurse shark, for instance, the media would have us believe it was a killer. It’s never bitten anyone, and it's not going to. Neither has the Hammerhead. There’s no record of a bite on a human by Hammerhead ever.” 

Can you tell us about your 1981 cover for National Geographic in the chainmail suit?
VT: “Well, my husband always felt, chainmail would stop a shark bite. It was invented a long time ago for warriors and soldiers, and it stopped an arrow, a spear, a sword, and a knife. And it was very fashionable until they invented the crossbow, and an arrow went straight through it. So, it went out of fashion. Then it was for butchers' boning gloves. My husband had decided in the ‘70s to make a full suit out of chainmail. He talked about and talked about it and finally decided to do it. And to our surprise, we found the makers of the mesh were an American company, based in Plainville Massachusetts, and they made butchers’ boning gloves. So, he paid to have a chainmail suit made to fit him. He didn't take into account that the chainmail wouldn’t stretch and found he couldn't move in it. You can move in a wetsuit: neoprene stretches. So, I had to wear it. And that's how I ended up in it on the cover.

We did the tests in San Diego, America with ocean sharks, potentially very dangerous. It worked perfectly. It’s now worn by divers who work with sharks, a man who works with rabid monkeys, and all sorts of people. The police in London have a vest made of the material. And there are about seven or eight divers around the world who claim it was their idea, but it wasn't. I wrote a short book on it. Ron said ‘We better write something really specific about it because somebody's going wrap themselves in chicken wire and jump in with a great white shark and get eaten’. So, I wrote a little book.

I've been bitten hundreds of times - possibly more than a hundred, easily. And never had any problems.”

Your first cover for National Geographic was in 1973. How did that affect your career?
VT: “It affected our career hugely. There was a man called Lars-Eric Lindblad and he built a ship, the first adventure ship ever built. It had a strengthened hull [to penetrate ice] and he would put on it, lecturers, and he advertised: ‘See the Great Barrier Reef in Indonesia, with the girl on the cover of National Geographic’. And that boat gave Ron and I the entire world. And paid us very well. That boat did more for Ron and I than anything else that happened. And that includes JAWS because it took us everywhere. We took our nephew, and he now owns his own boat and does something similar. We met amazing people. All over the world, in the finest matter possible, it had diving and snorkelling and bird watching; that was Sir Peter Scott. We did the water bit, and a guy called Lyle Watson did history and every night the passengers would go to lectures. It was very popular. Now they must be a hundred boats doing the same thing.” 

National Geographic 1973 cover by Valerie & Ron Taylor

What would you tell someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
VT: “Young women often come to me and ask questions. I always tell them the same thing. Just do it. If you’re serious, and you want to be a success, just got out and do whatever it is. That’s the best way.”

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“A little bit of everything wonderful, that’s all you need;
[to] make your heart race, make you happy…”

Valerie Taylor, OAM – Conservationist, Diver & Photographer.