“Blue Water, White Death”: A “Shark Week” flashback to the 1971 doc that pre-dated “Jaws”

By on July 10, 2015

If you’ve been paying attention, you know it’s been “Shark Week” on TV, and we think we’ve done our part, telling you first about this fan’s “filmumentary” — which he considered a kind of “love letter” to the blockbuster 1975 movie Jaws — but we thought before the week was over we’d also like to share this trailer for a limited-release documentary that came out in 1971, four years before Steven Spielberg made everyone afraid to go in the water.

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The documentary is based around a crew of divers and photographers/filmmakers that traveled from South Africa to Madagascar, Ceylon and finally to South Australia in order to film great white sharks underwater. Their search lasted nine months, beginning in April 1969, and it was by all accounts an arduous, and sometimes dangerous journey, but probably the most amazing thing about it is the fact that so much of the film is spent searching for, but not finding, the elusive great white shark.

Blue Water, White Death — and you can tell right from the archaic title, referring as it does to great white sharks as “death,” that this is a kind of vintage perspective not seen on any of those “Shark Week” programs this week, which tend to focus now more on educating people about the sharks themselves or showing how they’re being protected — was directed by Peter Gimbel, one of the five diver/photographers onboard and leader of the expedition, and James Lipscomb, the above-water cameraman.

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The other diver/photographers on Gimbel’s crew included Ron Taylor (the only member of the team to have actually seen a great white shark up-close and personal at that point), his wife Valerie Taylor, diving coordinator Phil Clarkson, Stan Waterman, still photographer Peter Lake, and, get this, folk singer Tom Chapin, brother of Harry Chapin, who worked with the surface crew.

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You probably recognize the Taylors as the well-known deep-diving filmmakers who provided Spielberg with the actual footage of great white sharks for Jaws. Adventurer writer Peter Matthiessen was also one of the crew members, and his book, Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, was said to have been one of the sources that author Peter Benchley used for research (along with watching Blue Water, White Death) while he was writing Jaws, which was commissioned by Doubleday Books and published in 1974.

Benchley’s other sources included Jacques Cousteau’s The Shark: Splendid Savage of the Sea, Thomas B. Allen’s Shadows In The Sea, and David H. Davies’ About Sharks And Shark Attacks. (This one, Shark Attack, published in 1978, was one of our favorites back in the day).

Blue Water, White Death was released theatrically in the U.S. on June 1, 1971 by National General Pictures and was advertised heavily on television, but it did not have the same kind of impact that Jaws did, but then again, few films in the 70s did.

This trailer above, by the way, was created by the fine folks at Vulcan Video for the screening last year (during “Shark Week,” naturally) at the Alamo Drafthouse. Here’s a clip from the original film, dubbed in French!:

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Here’s a great interview with Valerie Taylor that we found on Amazon:

There are a few scary moments in the film, of course, but was there any one particular moment you recall when you really thought someone was going to get hurt?

Yes, when we first left the cages, there were over 100 big potentially dangerous sharks around us all in a feeding pattern. I thought ‘this is madness, one of us could get bitten.’ I said to Peter ‘you go out first and if you make it I will come out after you.’ Watching Peter leave the cage by himself was both fascinating and fearful. I think that was my most frightened moment. I guess no one likes to see a friend in what is a very dangerous situation. Surprisingly when I swam out and joined him there was no fear, just a huge excitement.

Jaws came out a few years after this, and of course Benchley was inspired by Blue Water, White Death. How did you feel about that and its portrayal of sharks as man-eating monsters?

Jaws was a fictitious film about a pretend shark. It was the same as a gorilla destroying the building in King Kong. Just a story. I do not know why it affected people the way it did. People loved the gorilla and hated the shark. Universal had us going around the US doing TV and radio interviews talking about sharks and how sharks did not think or behave like the fictitious beast in Jaws. I guess it is the fear of the unknown. Sharks are not well understood. They live in an alien environment. Gorillas live in ours. We understand them better. Once you understand an animal it becomes less fearful.

Do you have one particularly interesting memory from this adventure that’s etched in your mind? What was the greatest part of this whole adventure?

Absolutely. Diving with the oceanic white tips in the open ocean while they were feeding on the whale. No one had ever done anything like this before and no one will ever do it again. It was the greatest, most exciting few weeks in my life. I would pay to do it again. Sheer unadulterated adventure. A trip back in time to a world unchanged in several million years. Blue Water, White Death was a gift which at the time I was unaware of. The greatest part of the whole adventure was, quite simply, the adventure.

What do you hope people watching this film for the first time today will get out of it?

The same as they did when it first came out. It has not dated. It is an exciting and true undertaking such as few people are ever lucky enough to experience. No one ever asked us to act a part. Jim Lipscomb, the above-water cameraman, was incredible the way he followed us around, carrying that big 35-mm Arriflex on his shoulder. We became used to him and his camera but he was always there recording everything we did. It is a great pity that all the outtakes are lost. There is a second story just in what never appeared in the final production.

Did this expedition and your experience swimming with great whites change your life in any significant way?

We had worked with Great Whites before. It was the Oceanic sharks that changed how I looked at dangerous sharks and it was the wonderful people I was so fortunate to be working with that gave us friendships that endure to this day that were most significant to me. However, I guess it was the original story about hunting for the biggest Great White that gave me these memories, so Great Whites have enriched my life. Also Ron’s filming of these wonderful sharks opened the way for us to work on Jaws, Jaws 2, and Orca. I guess swimming with Great Whites did make a big difference to the lives of both of us. We still work with Great Whites but we will never be able to dive with hundreds of big sharks feeding on a whale carcass again, nobody will. Thirty-eight years ago, before the impact of computer technology we lived in a different world. Today, Blue Water, White Death could probably be produced in a computer.

Can you talk a bit about the filming technology of that time and how challenging it was to film underwater?

I did not do any underwater filming. That was Ron Taylor, Stan Waterman and Peter Gimbel. They were shooting on 35-mm film in the Techniscope format which is very wide-screen. I was just a female shark wrangler. I also did a lot of the underwater still photography. However watching the problems the underwater cinema-photographers had to overcome, I was always relieved when all the cameras worked and no great sequences were missed because of camera failure. It was not a filming job where any missed action could be repeated.

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Blue Water, White Death, by the way, clearly seems to have not only been an influence on Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, but even more so it appears to have been a major influence on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the 2004 comedic film directed, co-written, and co-produced by Wes Anderson.

If you think you might be interested in the story behind the making of Blue Water, White Death, you can buy the book that documents the adventure: Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark by Peter Matthiessen.

Meanwhile, the cable channel Discovery took a big bite out of the competition with big ratings this week, and claimed Wednesday’s top three programs (July 8, 2015) in Nielsen’s adults 18-49 rankings with its Shark Week programming of “Super Predator“, but we here at Night Flight kinda prefer the vintage great white shark docs, don’t you?

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.