Toward the end of Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper descends into the water in a shark cage in an ill-fated attempt to kill the big nasty fish by stabbing it with a poisoned spear. In a movie filled with terrifying underwater imagery, this sequence stands out for the sheer dread that accompanies the great white emerging from the water’s darkness to bite the hell out of the cage. As it turns out, the real-life shark footage used for the scene was the result of a similarly frightening accident—one that, as described by diver and shark documentarian Valerie Taylor, could’ve killed the actor standing in for Dreyfuss.
In an article for Inside Hook, Taylor looked back on how she and her husband Ron—divers “involved with the world’s first documentaries on great whites”—filmed the real shark footage used in Jaws. She explains that because “the shark in the movie was supposed to be 25 feet long” and the great whites in South Australia where she and her crew was filming “were closer to 15 or 16 feet long,” they had to use “a very small boat, [build] a smaller shark-proof cage, and [hire] a very short actor.” This “very short actor,” they learned after having already hired him, “didn’t really know how to dive and was worried about being around the sharks”—which seemed like a problem.
While they tried to figure out what to do, “suddenly a huge 16-foot great white got caught in the [boat winch] that was connected to the cage.” The shark thrashed around so furiously that the winch broke and the shark cage was destroyed. “If the actor had been in the cage when this happened, he would have died,” Taylor writes. “We were fortunate that he was so reluctant.”
Still, Taylor’s husband Ron was already in the water with his camera when the cage went down, and she quickly retrieved another camera to film from the boat. “It was some of the most incredible shark footage anyone had ever seen,” Taylor remembers. What her crew shot was so good, in fact, that the movie’s script was rewritten to include the cage being destroyed “because that was a pretty dramatic sequence and [it] would be silly not to use it.”
Read the rest of the article for more on Jaws, Taylor, and what it’s like to spend your work days hanging out with a creature she calls “the epitome of an apex predator.”