Taylor Steele: Saving those sharks
By capturing surfing through the medium of film, Taylor Steele has played a pivotal role in the development and articulation of surf culture.
His name has been synonymous with surf filmmaking for the better part of three decades; from cutting his teeth in the early days on the North Shore of Hawaii with punk-fused, high-octane drenched vignettes of Kelly Slater, Dorian et al, before going on to the 2000s capturing the world’s best surfers in an admixture of pristine locations, evocative compositions, and captivating soundtracks — many would argue his works have been an underpinning to what we now see as the modern-day surf film.
What a lot of people don’t realise is in recent years the Californian has begun to focus his filmmaking energies on projects, and documentaries, he considers having a motivating message for viewers: A call to action for a better cause. Working alongside Mick Fanning on Wildark projects in Alaska and Africa has allowed the two to complement an already solid relationship; meaning the dynamic and personal bond the pair have is now going beyond the scope of just wave riding.
Airing this week on National Geographic is 'Save This Shark', a two-part documentary directed by Steele and starring Fanning as he goes on a personal mission to learn more about sharks and debunk common misconceptions. Could the timing be any more delicate, yet appropriate at the same time? The documentary and the issue of shark conversation will certainly divide some people, and whichever view you take on the issue of human/shark co-existence — knowledge should always help us to a better conclusion.
Alex Mitcheson had the opportunity to speak with Taylor on the release of 'Save This Shark' to learn more about his involvement, personal outcomes, and how he views co-existence between us and these oft-misunderstood creatures.
Swellnet: Hey Taylor, thanks for chatting. In honesty, it’s quite the honour for me as I’ve been a fan of your work for the last two decades.
Taylor Steele: (laughs) Awesome, right on. And no, thank you, I’m quite stoked to have a chat about this project.
Great. Firstly, how did 'Save This Shark' first come about?
About three years ago I was doing some work with This Film Studio. We were regularly talking about future stuff and what inspired us in the documentary space. We kind of stumbled across cricketer Kevin Pieterson and quickly became aware of his campaign and desire to help protect endangered rhinos in Africa. We ended up doing a two-part documentary with him titled 'Save This Rhino', and we realised how good a concept it was to bring in a sporting figure as an everyday person’s point of view to these complex subject matters, and ultimately bring awareness and tell the story.
The result of that project was I became passionate and was looking to do other ones.
And that’s where Mick comes in, right?
Yeah. My relationship with Mick is long-standing and after he saw that one, he knew we could potentially do something cool and do his story justice. I know he had a lot of unanswered questions emotionally on how he might deal with sharks, and knowing what he stands for and his goals with conservation he was the perfect choice. It was always going to be powerful coming from him.
Mick and I have a pact also, whereby I don’t ask him to do something I wouldn’t do myself. With this in mind, he knew I was going to be right there beside him - I’m sure that was reassuring for him.
Do you feel a project or documentary like this one has been long overdue?
I think so. It is hard though because there are a bunch of animals out there which are endangered that aren’t necessarily cute or cool, say for example vultures, but they are still really important to the ecosystems they are a part of. Sharks aren’t a rare animal, yet people will often play the fear card when we talk about sharks and that’s why their plight is a hard sell.
What lack of knowledge or misconceptions became evident for you from working on this documentary?
A tonne of stuff. The biggest thing was actually how cautious sharks are and how they are very protective of their eyes. In learning this I became quite confident they aren’t just attacking everything that moves, they do in fact study things for quite a while before engaging. As a surfer, this was comforting for me as you realise attacking surfboards is not what they want to do.
Another aspect was how each species of shark has a different emotional state, like a personality. Hammerhead sharks, in general, are quite sensitive and even get stressed quite easily, and the opposite is bull sharks who come across as quite resilient and durable. When you see these mannerisms clearly, it’s super inspiring.
The world’s oceans have acted as your office for the best part of three decades, this said, as you’ve gotten older do you feel a sort of obligation to be involved in ocean conservation?
I certainly feel like I have to protect the ocean and do my part. For me, though, it doesn’t stem from my work but simply from all of the enjoyment I’ve had from it over the years. The lifestyle it’s afforded me is one I want to make sure my kids have a chance to enjoy as well.
What’s your opinion on the timing of 'Save This Shark' being released in Australia?
Look, the timing is not ideal in my eyes. Firstly, touching on what happened last week on the Gold Coast, it’s a terrible thing and it’s affected the local area, yet as surfers, I think those things touch every surfer worldwide. He was one of our brothers and one of our tribe for sure and I feel so bad for his family and friends.
On the other side of things this is not going to be great for sharks either. I think looking forward we have to be optimistic and remember we have and are developing technology to get ahead of these things. My biggest hope from this project is pushing towards ways we can live with these animals and avoid hurting one another.
// ALEX MITCHESON
'Save This Shark' airs on National Geographic on Foxtel, Fetch and Sky from 15 September.