"There were 30 or 40 sharks around me. We'd been chumming for them, but that day they were very, very active, making more commotion than we'd ever seen. I was holding up fish to lure sharks in front of Ron's movie camera so he could show how we get sharks to act for the movies. They take a big bite for the camera. We'd just been making shark bite jokes. I'd only been in the water five minutes.
"Then I felt a blow to my left leg. I looked down and saw the leg was in the mouth of a six-foot blue shark. I bent down immediately and grabbed its nose and punched it. After the fourth punch it let go, and as I saw the teeth coming out of my wet suit and all the blood following it, I thought: 'Damn.'"
Valerie Taylor has been a diver for 25 of her 44 years. The Australian and her husband, Ron, are pioneers in the world of underwater photography ("when we started there was nobody but Cousteau and Hess") who did the underwater footage for "Jaws" and "Jaws II," the just-released "The Blue Lagoon," Peter Gimbel's "Blue Water, White Death," "Orca" and other adventure films, as well as inumerable television specials and magazine articles.
Since she was bitten two weeks ago 25 miles off the Pacific coast at San Clemente Island, she has one main concern: that nobody go around bad-mouthing sharks.
"It was my fault. I put myself in a position for it to happen. I wasn't watching."
At the time, however, she wasn't thinking about that so much as the fact that the cameramen kept going to her aid rather than filming the incident. "Get your cameras rolling," she shouted when she surfaced," "I've been bitten."
One man, Howard Hall, did film the actual bite, and when he quit to go to the rescue, Valerie's husband, on the boat 100 yards off, continued the coverage. The film is worth a lot of money, she believes, but it's owned by Lansburgh Productions, which had hired them for the documentary. She gets $200 a day as a still photographer. Ron is the filmmaker.
She was furious that they had to cut away her brand new wet suit to get at the six-inch slash around her calf.
"I saw all the flesh bunching out, and I thought they'd never get it back together, but luckily this was America, it's unreal -- right away brought me to San Diego, where a plastic surgeon, one of the best, stiched it up just like that. In Australia there wouldn't have been a helicopter, and we were seven sailing hours out."
The shark's teeth, as viewers of "Jaws" know, are like razor blades. The bite may be almost gentle, because no great gnashing is needed. The triangular teeth, rows of them, angled invitingly toward the shark's stomach, simply sink into the soft flesh, and the shark turns its head a bit, making a neat cut, like a can opener.
It's true, she says, that sharks go for the smell of blood. They can detect one part blood in a million parts water. But they are curious creatures and they're just as apt to go where there is some thrashing about in the water, or where any large object is. Mostly they eat ailing and old fish, sickly or injured. You rarely find wounded fish in the ocean.
Valerie Taylor was "a plain old sports diver" when she met her future husband. He asked her to pose for his underwater movies, and soon the two of them were making short films at 15 pounds apiece. The first thing they learned was that pictures of large, dangerous marine animals were what sold best.
Finally they sold an hour-long special to NBC for 6,000 pounds ("or was it dollars? I never can remember"), and then they teamed up with Gimbel for his documentary on the great white shark. Ron was the only person then who had ever filmed the great white, and the movie shows one of the monsters chewing up his cage while he films it.
"Ron makes his own camera housings and his own lights.His are infinitely better than what you can buy."
Much of their work is done with sunlight only, however. This was a special prolbem in "The Blue Lagoon," where the stars were naked and had to be filmed against the sun.
"The Taylors' Inner Space" was the underwater TV series that made them independent. They shot it without backers, paid for each of the 13 episodes with the money from the earlier ones, finally saw it snapped up by NBC and later three dozen foreign countries. Valerie Taylor was in town this week to talk to people at the National Geographic. She's done many pages of work for the magazine, appearing on the cover once. In a 1973 article there are photos of her feeding a deadly moray eel from her gloved hands and palling around with a giant manta ray.
"I just hope people don't get foolish about sharks because of this," she says. "I mean, seeing 'King Kong' doesn't mean you expect a gorilla to attack you in New York. And what about Hitchcock's 'The Birds?'"
She shakes her head and touches the tapes around her calf. "The poor old shark," she muses.