SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES

Sharkwater director Rob Stewart battles poachers, disease and attempted-murder charges

By Jason Anderson
SHARKWATER ***
Directed by Rob Stewart. (PG) 90 min. Opens March 23.

Some directors have a conniption fit when a production assistant hands over a lukewarm chai latte. But biologist and photographer turned filmmaker Rob Stewart endured far more daunting circumstances during the making of his first documentary feature. While shooting Sharkwater, Stewart was imperiled in a high-seas confrontation between an illegal fishing boat and a Sea Shepherd vessel captained by eco-warrior Paul Watson; was arrested in Costa Rica on multiple charges of attempted murder; risked the wrath of Taiwanese mobsters; simultaneously contracted dengue fever, West Nile virus and TB; and nearly lost his leg (and life) to the flesh-eating disease.

Surprisingly, the safest thing Stewart did while making Sharkwater was swim with sharks. In fact, the whole point of the director's four-year-long endeavour was to show the world that these creatures have been unfairly maligned and that the devastation of their populations worldwide could have a catastrophic impact on humankind. Stewart's film - which won awards at several festivals and earned a spot in Canada's Top Ten - makes an impassioned case for shark conservation thanks to its forceful arguments, its strikingly beautiful underwater imagery and a surprisingly suspenseful series of events that Stewart had the good (and sometimes bad) fortune to capture on camera.

Though born in Toronto, Stewart spent much of his youth somewhat closer to the ocean in Florida. "I've loved sharks ever since I can remember," he said in an interview last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Sharkwater made its world premiere. "Sharks were the coolest, most amazing and most powerful version of all of the creepy, crawly things I loved. I spent all my time trying to get close to them when I was a kid. My career has been the most natural progression of figuring out a life where I can be underwater."

After getting a B.Sc. in Biology at the University of Western Ontario and studying Marine Biology and Zoology at universities in Kenya and Jamaica, Stewart worked as an underwater photographer, shooting for the Canadian Wildlife Federation's publications and such magazines as Outpost, BBC Wildlife and GEO. The more he got to know and understand the animals, the more frustrated he became about their portrayal in Jaws' various movie descendants (e.g., Deep Blue Sea, Open Water), as well as the ostensibly more accurate animal documentaries that nevertheless hype up the shark's dangerous rep.

Says Stewart, "It's always so one-sided. You're never told that they're beautiful, benign creatures who really don't eat people. Flesh is never removed when there's a shark attack because they realized they didn't get what they wanted and they leave. Every time there's a shark attack, people go, 'This menacing shark came in and tried to kill them!' But a shark could kill someone if they wanted to in a heartbeat. It's a fish and it's enormous and it's in a world that we are so foreign to. We're clumsy, awkward animals and they're perfect - super-fast and equipped to do damage. If they wanted to eat us, they could."

As Stewart points out in his narration for Sharkwater, elephants are far more prodigious man-killers than sharks have ever been. Yet our fear and hatred has contributed to a growing problem, one compounded by the lack of strong protection for ocean wildlife and by the Asian predilection for shark-fin soup.

Hoping a film could change people's perceptions better than his photographs or articles could, Stewart originally set out to make one that emphasized the beauty of the shark and its habitats, imagining something like "an underwater Baraka or Winged Migration."

But as he says, "Everything started going awry... and awry very quickly." In 2002, Stewart took a journey with Paul Watson and his crew on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's vessel the Farley Mowat, which was journeying to help police poachers in the Cocos Island National Park World Heritage Site.

Watson, who was also on hand for Sharkwater's world premiere, emphasizes that the Farley Mowat had been invited to the area by Costa Rican authorities. "We had actually intercepted a longline fishing boat off of Cocos the year before," he says. "We assisted [the Costa Rican Park Rangers] in seizing it and it became the first vessel confiscated by the courts. So we thought the Costa Ricans were really behind us. We were acting on government instructions. We weren't doing this as renegades."

Nevertheless, a confrontation with an illegal fishing boat in Guatemalan waters led to the arrest of Watson and his crew upon arrival in Costa Rica. "What we discovered," says Watson, "was that the Taiwanese shark-fishing industries got their hands in the pockets of the prosecutors and the judges. The big surprise to me was learning that of Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica, Costa Rica is the most corrupt of those three countries. Everyone thinks Costa Rica is this progressive, democratic country and it just isn't."

"It's got this veneer of conservation," says Stewart, "because they do have a lot of national parks and things that are theoretically protected on paper, but not in reality."

Driven to investigate why "we were stuck battling court cases" and very nearly prosecuted for the attempted murder of the illegal fisherman before being expelled from the country, Stewart later snuck back into Costa Rica with camera in hand. He discovered that their arrest was due to the influence of Taiwanese companies (many of them with mob connections) who supply shark fins to the Far East, where shark-fin soup remains a costly delicacy despite the fact that fins don't taste of anything. "We found all these massive fin operations with millions of dollars worth of fins and the companies were all Taiwanese. Everyone in Costa Rica said, 'Oh, yes, the Taiwanese just built that building and this highway.' The fact that there was this huge investment tipped us off."

Sharkwater's revelations are startling and dire in their ramifications, especially if the world's shark population continues to be decimated. (Over 100 million die every year.) "These ecosystems are more complex than anything humans have built," says Stewart, "and they've taken hundreds of millions of years to put together. Every time throughout history when we have removed one ecosystem or even one animal from an ecosystem, it's been disastrous. Sharks have been around so much longer than any other animal that we've dabbled in removing before. And if you're talking about removing something that's been there since the beginning, you're removing the framework. That's got to be more catastrophic than you can imagine."

Stewart's own troubles - which included a battle with the flesh-eating disease contracted during his adventures in Costa Rica, and then another series of illnesses after more travels - pale in comparison to the potential calamities we all face. In fact, those challenges may have added urgency and clarity to Sharkwater.

"Rob went through a lot of ups and downs to get this film made," says Watson. "But in hindsight, it's almost like he had to go through that whole process to really produce something that is going to have an impact."

"We got turned down in a million different ways and I think the film needed that," adds Stewart. "We needed all that to figure out exactly what this story is and get all the ideas about what's going on with sharks in the world finalized in my head and in the movie. The most difficult times are the ones that have served the film the best."

So misunderstood, the sharks of the world couldn't ask for a more determined advocate.

PATROLLING THE SEAS WITH THE SEA SHEPHERD CONSERVATION SOCIETY

Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society continue to fight for the protection of the shark, as well as the rest of the creatures that are indiscriminately yanked out of the oceans. The organization regularly confiscates illegal lines and nets and patrols for poachers. The incidents depicted in Sharkwater hardly mark the first time Watson has tangled with illegal shark-fishing boats.

"In Ecuador in 2001, we caught a boat with 600 shark fins," he says in an interview at TIFF. "We took video cameras on board, which we hadn't done before. The captain simply picked up the radio and called the owner of the boat, who happened to be having dinner at that very moment with an admiral in the Ecuadorean Navy. The admiral gets on the radio and tells the officer in charge, 'Let them go.' The officer says, 'What do you mean let them go?' And the admiral says, 'Let them go now.' This is all being filmed so when we came back and nobody was doing anything about this, we just turned the tape over to Ecuadorean TV. That admiral was court-martialled."

Sea Shepherd has concentrated much of its efforts in the Galapagos Islands, which the government of Ecuador has pledged to protect with "no-take" zones around the coasts. But Watson worries that the fishermen and poachers will soon gain the upper hand. "More fishermen are wanting to come in," he says. "It's a very difficult situation for the park rangers. The real danger is if the fishermen get too much power, they'll just throw the rangers out and that'll be the end of the Galapagos. Our position has always been that we have to draw a line in the sand here: if we can't save the Galapagos, then we give up on Planet Earth."

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