Perilous times for sharks


Michael D. Reid, Times Colonist
Published: Friday, March 23, 2007
Rating: 4 (out of five)

Rob Stewart laughs when told that his mission to dispel misconceptions about sharks as bloodthirsty maneaters prompts memories of a line in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It's when sexy femme fatale Jessica Rabbit purrs: "I'm not bad ... I'm just drawn that way."

The Toronto-based wildlife photographer and filmmaker -- on behalf of the sleek, toothy subjects of his new film Sharkwater -- can relate. Thanks to books, songs and movies such as Steven Spielberg's Jaws and its clones, sharks have long been perceived as vicious killing machines -- a reputation Stewart wants to put to rest once and for all.

"He made a great movie," Stewart says of Spielberg's 1975 megahit. "It's just a shame he had to villain-ize sharks. People latched on and became afraid to go in their swimming pools. It spawned people killing sharks thinking they were dangerous to humanity."

During a visit to Victoria and in his fascinating, gorgeously photographed documentary, Stewart rattles off facts to disprove shark myths. Most sharks are docile. They're afraid of humans. More people are killed by soda pop machines than sharks each year. And they face extinction. Who knew?

"The only people who are afraid of sharks are those who have never met them," says Stewart, who first encountered a shark at age eight while free- diving in the Cayman Islands. "We should be looking for examples from people who know what they're talking about."

Stewart, 27, falls into this category. The scuba diver and marine biology graduate has had a lifelong fascination with sharks, and he was saddened to learn that an estimated 100 million sharks are killed each year because of human greed and paranoia. Since he began shooting underwater at age 13, the world has become his fish tank.

"I read every book and watched every film about sharks and, since I grew up in Florida and the Caribbean I got to spend a lot of time hanging out with them."

After travelling the world as chief photographer for Canadian Wildlife Federation magazines, Stewart began making the film that was initially meant to be an "underwater Winged Migration or Bar-aka" that would show the magnificence of the misunderstood ocean predators.

The film took on a life of its own, however, as human drama upstaged undersea wonders. Hitching a ride in April 2002 to the Costa Rican island of Cocos to gather underwater footage on the Ocean Warrior with renegade conservationist Paul Watson, Stewart uncovered an illegal shark-fin operation when the conservation vessel intercepted a Costa Rican fishboat.

The film dramatically illustrates the Ocean Warrior's attempts to ram the boat in a bid to stop shark poachers from using long lines to catch sharks, slicing off their fins and tossing bloody carcasses back into the sea. Although the hunt is illegal in Costa Rica, there's a lucrative market for the fins used in traditional cures and Asian delicacies such as shark-fin soup.

Despite being invited by the Costa Rican government to monitor such illegal operations, the Ocean Warrior crew found themselves fighting attempted-murder charges because of the altercation. Stewart also incurred the wrath of the shark-fin mafia, whose illegal operations his crew had covertly photographed. In one scene, shark-finners are seen frantically trying to sweep drying fins off rooftops when they realize they're being filmed. The sequence wasn't even intended for the movie.

"I was filming the fins on the roof so I could give it to the government and say, 'Look what's happening in your country,'" recalls the soft-spoken filmmaker.

What he didn't realize at the time was that his actions put their lives on the line, but he chuckles now at memories of his exploits while on the run from assassins.

By the time he arrived in the Galapagos Islands to film endangered marine life, and still lacking underwater footage, Stewart -- afflicted during the process with dengue fever, West Nile virus, tuberculosis and flesh-eating disease -- had to be hospitalized.

"We filmed ourselves basically in case we'd end up in a Costa Rican prison for the rest of our lives, so we'd have a record of what happened," he recalls, noting it was when he was in hospital he realized he had more than a pretty-pictures shark tale on his hands.

"I had this crazy story of corruption, organized crime and intrigue, but nobody would take a chance on a first-time filmmaker," says Stewart, who was eventually persuaded by distributors and sales agents to incorporate his own observations as the film's storyline.

"They said, 'You keep telling us sharks aren't dangerous, but you don't show us that.' How can we believe you?"

Advice like that inspired one of Sharkwater's most amazing sequences, in which Stewart, wearing just gloves, a diving mask and a black Speedo, playfully swims with sharks.

Noting that eight million people die of starvation annually and that "we need six planet Earths to sustain life based on the resources we use in North America," the conservationist says it's heartening that with the release of films such as An Inconvenient Truth and Manufactured Landscapes, there's a growing market for films that address environmental concerns.

"One of the most important things we need to do now is make conservation cool. We should be taught conservation before we're taught Shakespeare or calculus."

Review Sharkwater