She's also the subject of a new National Geographic documentary that premiered this summer.

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Valerie Taylor
Valerie Taylor in 1982
| Credit: Courtesy of Ron & Valerie Taylor

Since the 1975 release of 'Jaws,' the summer season has become somewhat synonymous with sharks. Add in the pop culture phenomenon that is 'Shark Week' (and its many spinoffs) plus coverage on the news of any shark encounter and you've got a jam-packed summer. But despite the pervasiveness of sharks in media, most of us are still quite far removed from these magnificent fish. However, Valerie Taylor has dedicated her career to them.

The 85-year-old conservationist and photographer has spent her whole life in the company of sharks. First as a champion spearfisher and then working with her husband late Ron Taylor to document her dives with sharks. The amazing footage of Taylor, often shown on National Geographic, featured the petite blond wearing her signature pink wetsuit swimming around with some quite sizeable sharks.

The native Australian's fearlessness as well as Ron's superb camera skills eventually led to a call from Hollywood. She and her husband filmed much of the real shark footage that was featured in 'Jaws' as well as the documentary 'Blue Water, White Death.'

Eventually, Taylor turned her passion for diving to shark conservation after seeing how the negative Hollywood treatment of sharks was decimating the species. Her fascinating story is now the subject of the documentary "Playing with Sharks" now available on Disney and is part of National Geographic's six-week summer event, SHARKFEST available on National Geographic, Nat Geo WILD.

Travel + Leisure spoke with Taylor to discuss her lifelong relationship with sharks as well as her personal favorite diving locations, and, of course, what it was like to swim with a Great White out in the open.

T+L: What makes a diving location ideal?

Valerie Taylor: "Like going on a bushwalk it depends on what you are looking for. If it is just bush it can become rather boring. After a while, throw in a few birds and small animals, the walk starts to get exciting, but having a big animal cross your path then that will make a day extra special. It is the same underwater. Clear warm water full of unafraid marine life along with a big shark or a manta ray will make any dive special. Sadly, this is becoming more and more difficult to find and now with the pandemic keeping divers land-bound, the fishing boats are plundering these special places of what makes them special. Divers worldwide do more to protect marine life than all the conservationists put together. Divers, just by being there, protected many hot spots. Now, most of these top dive locations have been plundered by fishing vessels."

Valerie Taylor
Valerie Taylor
| Credit: National Geographic/Craig Parry

What are your personal favorite dives?

"Top dives that I know are still good are Shark Reef, Fiji — can still guarantee seven species on every shark dive and very friendly fish. The Bahamas are totally fantastic for many sharks, dolphins, and clear water. Indonesia offers the best of everything marine if you know where to go. For small and fantastic macro photography try Ambon Indonesia or French Polynesia. Fakarava Pass the Tuomotos is totally pristine and has clear water masses of sharks, big mantas, and reef fish."

Was there a dive where you were worried for your life or were completely surprised by what happened?

"Yes, Lontar Rock Sapie Strait in Indonesia. I was sucked down by a whirlpool. It's a bit of a worry when the bubbles from your exhaust are whirling around you instead of rising. I thought, 'this is it.' At 180 feet I hit what I think was the bottom and started to rise very fast. I thought I will get the bends and was trying to slow down. I saw the water lighten and then the water begins to slow. I swam my hardest but I seemed to be in slow motion. I saw a hand break the surface and swam even harder. Suddenly the current slowed down, I got control of my legs and just as I started to feel a downwards pull in the water I reach the hand and was pulled into the dingy. I was almost out of air and would not have survived another spin to the bottom. Having very good fins and a boat on the surface had saved my life."

Tell us what it was like to see your first Great White out in the open?

"I have only seen four great whites in the open in Australia. I saw many in South Africa where we were making a documentary for the Natal Sharks Board. We didn't have a cage and were in the water with always three and then one day five great whites. They only hung around because we had baits down. Their personalities are very different to our Australian Great Whites."

Valerie Taylor
Credit: Courtesy of Ron & Valerie Taylor

What are your best tips for people who are diving and maybe aren't quite as comfortable around sharks as you?

Well, the best answer is only swim where there are no sharks. There are plenty of pools, rivers, and lakes without sharks. Otherwise swim with a group between the lifesaver flags. However, if you wear a mask, snorkel, and fins I feel that seeing many fish and maybe small sharks gives you confidence you may not easily achieve by just swimming the same area and not being able to see what is around you.

What was it like to be a part of that film and be on the set? Did you expect it to do as well as it did at the box office and as an important part of cinema forever?

"Ron and myself were amazed by the general public's reaction to 'Jaws.' We thought it was a good film, very well produced but not something that would make anyone be afraid to go swimming off the beach. The mass slaughter of sharks that followed was not only unexpected but very distressing. [Author] Peter Benchley said if he had known the public's reaction to the film would have been so disastrous to our shark population he would never have written the book."

"To their credit, Universal sent Ron and myself all around America doing talk shows telling people that it was a fictitious story about a fictitious shark but at the time it seemed the public did not want to listen. The interviewers generally tried to have us talk about the horror of sharks and how they were indiscriminate killers. They were not interested in the well-being of the over 200 other placid harmless to humans species of shark."

You provided so much of the real shark footage. What was it like to see that on the big screen and see how the audience reacted to it?

"The film needed the live shark footage of a free-swimming shark and I believe this added a lot to the realistic appearance of the the animatronic shark used in the film. Seeing it on the big screen was nice but we had already seen similar footage in the feature film 'Blue Water White Death' in which we appeared as ourselves and 2 documentaries we had already made about the Great White. I think the audience reacted more to the shark when it could not be seen but was there, lurking somewhere nearby, a sinister presence waiting to strike a death blow."

When did you start to really think about how these animals needed protection? Would you say you observed a major change after Jaws was released in that sharks were being hunted more and people were more scared?

"'Jaws' started a horrible mass shark killing that took place not only in Australia but around the world. We were shocked by the masses of harmless sharks being slaughtered, particularly the very innocent Grey Nurse in Australia...I must thank the TV stations for giving me the whole of Australia as my audience. Ron would film me petting one of these supposed killing machines or swimming through a cave with four or five large sharks without being attacked. TV loved it and the Government fisheries department wanted to look like good guys, they also wanted to shut me up so I got my way."

What can people do now to help save sharks?

"What I have done to have many marine animals protected is writing dozens of letters to fisheries and the government about sharks, sea lions, grouper, and many areas of the reef."