SYDNEY — Ron Taylor, a beloved Australian marine conservationist who helped film some of the terrifying underwater footage used in the classic shark thriller "Jaws," has died after a long battle with cancer, a close family friend said Monday. He was 78.
Taylor, who had suffered from leukemia for two years, died on Sunday at a hospital in Sydney, said Andrew Fox, who worked with Taylor on shark conservation efforts for decades.
Fox said Taylor had mixed feelings about his work on "Jaws," which terrified beachgoers but ultimately helped draw attention to the intimidating yet often threatened animals.
Taylor and his wife, Valerie, spent years filming great white sharks and trying to persuade a wary public that the much-feared creatures were beautiful animals worthy of respect. Their stunning up-close images of sharks drew the attention of "Jaws" director Steven Spielberg, who asked the couple to capture footage of a great white for his 1975 blockbuster.
The Taylors shot much of the now-classic sequence in which the shark tears apart a cage holding one of the main characters.
They filmed off South Australia, using a miniature shark-proof cage with a very short diver inside in an attempt to make the real sharks look as large as the 25-foot mechanical shark used in the movie. While filming, a great white became tangled in the shark cage's cables and began thrashing violently as it tried to escape.
Fox's father, Rodney Fox, who famously survived a near-fatal great white shark attack in 1963, assisted on the shoot. Andrew Fox said both men were affected by criticism that the movie reinforced the notion that great whites were death machines. ("It is as if God created the devil and gave him — JAWS," the narrator in the film's theatrical trailer warned in an ominous voice.)
"That's something that Dad and Ron talked about a lot along with (late Jaws author) Peter Benchley," Andrew Fox said. "All of them ... felt a sense of shame, in a way, that they made so many people terrified of sharks and going in the water."
But in later years, Fox said, they came to realize that "it's actually the movie 'Jaws' that spawned people wanting to learn about great whites."
"Most of the research and interest in that shark has come about since the movie," Fox said.
Taylor was "right up there with Steve Irwin and David Attenborough in Australia," said Fox, who helps run a shark diving expedition company in South Australia.
Taylor, a Sydney native, had a long love affair with the ocean but started out as a spearfisherman. In the 1950s, he had a change of heart in the midst of a spearfishing competition.
"I just thought, 'What am I doing down here killing these poor, defenseless marine creatures?'" he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in 2005. "So I just packed up, went home — didn't even weigh my fish in — and never went back to another spearfishing competition."
He and Valerie went on to shoot several documentaries, including "Shark Hunters" and the TV series "Inner Space," narrated by William Shatner. In "Operation Shark Bite," Valerie wears a chain mail suit the couple designed to ward off damage from shark attacks, escaping without injury despite sharks chewing on her arm. (The suit was too small for Ron.)
In 2003, Taylor was named a Member of the Order of Australia, one of Australia's highest civilian honors, for his conservation work. Valerie received the same honor in 2010.
Taylor is survived by his wife.