THE moray eel poked its large head out of the coral and nervously eyed the people and cameras that had come to call. Even with the playful proddings of his human friend, Valerie Taylor, ``Harry'' was too camera shy to come out. ``Normally, he'll come out and go around my neck, or I'll hold him in my arms and cuddle him,'' said Mrs. Taylor in an interview. ``He's a very sweet eel.''
Despite Harry's timidity, the event made good footage for the film ``The Great Barrier Reef,'' a big-screen documentary now showing at Imax/Omnimax Theaters in the United States. Taylor, who starred in the film along with Ron, her husband, flew from her home in Sydney to the Museum of Science here, to attend the film's opening.
The Taylors specialize in photographing and filming sharks, but their practical experience with all sea creatures prompted Omnimax producers to seek their help.
In the film, Valerie plays with a sea turtle, holds a sleeping fish, and strokes a carpet shark as though they were her own pets. ``I talk to the animals all the time,'' says the tanned, blond-haired diver. ``They don't know what I'm saying, but they maybe know what I feel.''
The Taylors' fascination with marine life has led them from the shores of New Guinea to the Persian-Arabian Gulf to Antarctica in search of photographic treasures.
``I want a creature to come as close as possible,'' says Mrs. Taylor, who has had her photos featured in National Geographic. In the case of sharks, ``I'm hoping it will show some teeth.''
The demand for shark footage is ``overwhelming,'' she adds. After the Taylors' first major film, ``Shark Hunters,'' which was sold to American television in 1963, ``I remember Ron saying, `Well, we've finished with sharks - we can go on to something else.' We've never gotten to the something else!'' exclaims Mrs. Taylor.
The Taylors first produced shark footage for Australian newsreels. ``I worked with Port Jacksons, wobbegongs - sharks that are not prone to attack man. If you don't give them a reason to defend themselves, then you're safe. But nobody knew that in those days, particularly the newsreel people, so it all made good stuff.''
Later, they started working with more dangerous sharks, such as great whites, tigers, and blues. They are considered dangerous because they are unpredictable, says Taylor, who helped her husband shoot live shark sequences for ``Jaws'' and ``The Blue Lagoon.''
``Some do attack without provocation - but we've always had a very good relationship with all those species.''
In 1981, Valerie was the first person to test the mesh suit, a supple outfit of stainless-steel links, impervious to sharks' teeth. ``My husband got the idea,'' she says, after examining butchers' boning gloves made from the same material. Valerie tried it out, because the first suit made was too small for Ron.
The sharks didn't go for it. ``I tied fish all over me, sat on top of piles of tuna, made the sharks mad, and tried to push my arm in their mouth - but they would not bite!''
The first bite came three years later, when a blue shark attacked her. ``I watched that thing come up and open its mouth and I thought `well, here goes!''' says Taylor. ``My husband had assured me its teeth wouldn't penetrate. It doesn't have enough crush power.''
Indeed, she was unscathed.
Most of the time, Taylor says, mesh suits aren't needed even with dangerous sharks, provided they've already been well fed. ``Normally, we're just in the open,'' she says. There's always some risk (she's been bitten three times), ``but the greater the risk, the more fun it is.''
The day before Taylor came to the US she appeared on Australian television, rallying for protection of the great white shark.
``If you can protect lions, tigers, and elephants, why not a big shark, which is vanishing at a rapid rate before we know anything about it?'' she says. Her conservation efforts also include reefs, the Coral Sea, sea turtles, and sea lions.
For those interested in pursuing underwater photography, Taylor offers succinct advice: Keep your equipment simple and read ``Howard Hall's Guide to Successful Underwater Photography'' (Marcor Publishers, 1982).