Maclean’s Magazine


BRIAN D. JOHNSON | Mar 26, 2007 |

Hoping to undo the damage of ‘Jaws,’ Rob Stewart swims with predators, sails with pirates — and comes up with an ocean-going ‘Inconvenient Truth’
Rob Stewart keeps three aquariums in his downtown Toronto loft. Coiled in a glass case beside the television is Mali, a one-metre-long blood python that eats rats and loves to wrap herself around Stewart’s neck while he watches TV. A larger 90-gallon tank is home to Esmeralda, a prehistoric-looking arowana fish with scales that shimmer purple and a jaw that pops open like a Pez dispenser. “It’s a dragon fish knock-off,” says Stewart. “It can jump really high and pluck birds out of trees.” Beneath Esmeralda, a spotted freshwater stingray zooms over the aquarium’s black sand like a camouflaged warplane. At our approach, it darts toward us and flattens its white belly against the glass, making eye contact. You can detect a ghostly skeleton, a tiny humanoid rib cage. “I call him Bubba Gump, after the shrimp company in Forrest Gump, because he loves shrimp,” Stewart explains. “But they’re 30 cents each and he’ll suck back 40 at once.” So he feeds Bubba live goldfish, which live in a separate tank. “He likes to hunt them. He chews them up and shoots their scales out the gills behind his eyes.” Although Bubba is more lethal than the stingray that killed Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, Stewart likes to stick his hand in the tank and let Bubba swim around it. “There’s a different consciousness in the stingray than in normal fish,” says Stewart. “With sharks it’s the same. You can see them feel you and see them read you. There’s a performance and a perfection in their actions.”

Rob Stewart adores sharks. As a nine-year-old vacationing with his family in the Caribbean, he’d catch baby sharks and put them in a bathtub. “Ever since I had a fish tank,” he says, “I wanted the biggest, most dangerous predator inside it.” Now he knows better. His current pets were bred in captivity. And as the maker of Sharkwater, a new feature documentary, he has become a champion of shark conservation. Yes, sharks are in trouble. Polar bears, pandas and elephants get more attention. But an estimated 100 million sharks are slaughtered each year — their fins are sold for $300 a pound on Asian markets to make soup and potions. After 400 million years, the planet’s oldest large animal and most durable predator is prey.

Hollywood has typecast sharks as villains — from the monster that scared us out of the water in Jaws to the psycho fish that swallowed Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea. But Stewart argues they are more endangered than dangerous. And as the predators at the top of the ocean food chain, if they’re wiped out there could be environmental havoc.

Stewart was a 22-year-old underwater photographer with no filmmaking experience when he embarked on Sharkwater. He envisioned a rhapsodic wildlife doc that would redeem sharks, a kind of Finned Migration. But he got more story than he bargained for. He fell in with eco-pirates, hitched a ride on a vessel that would ram a boat of shark-finning poachers, got arrested, shot undercover footage of the shark-finning mafia, almost lost his leg from a tropical infection, ran afoul of Steven Spielberg — and learned how to make a movie the hard way, by trial and error.

Five years in the making, Sharkwater will be unleashed March 23 on 26 screens across the country — an unprecedented opening for a homegrown documentary. Quite a feat for a novice filmmaker: Stewart, now 27, has produced, written, directed, narrated and starred in an ambitious Canadian movie made with no public financing. Shot on sumptuous HD video, Sharkwater plays as a wildlife spectacle, a high-seas adventure and a piece of agitprop. It’s an ocean-going Inconvenient Truth. But despite slick production values, Stewart attacks his story with the primitive tenacity of a filmmaker who had to learn on the job — and ended up starring as his own naive protagonist, at the risk of tainting Sharkwater with a glimmer of narcissism.

With his swimmer’s physique and sleek, angled features, you can’t help notice that there’s something vaguely shark-like about Stewart’s appearance. “I get called Shark Boy all the time,” he shrugs, agreeing that he looks exceptionally young for his age. “If I shave and put on a baseball cap, I can pass for 15.” Stewart lives alone in his downtown condo, a converted warehouse space that’s a Boy’s Own dream pad. A massive HD projector, bought on eBay, sits in a crate in the living room. Clothes spill out of a suitcase on the floor. Shark photos adorn the walls. A toy great white perches on the TV.

Although Stewart is crazy about sharks, unlike animal freaks who have been literally devoured by their desire to get personal with predators (such as grizzly bear victim Timothy Treadwell), he says his obsession has limits. “I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the Grizzly Man kind of thing,” he says. “I love sharks the way people love horses. I think they’re amazing. But I’m not trying to develop a relationship with sharks, or become Shark Man or Shark Boy or whatever people call me. I just want to make conservation cool.”

He owes his obsession to a privileged childhood. The son of Brian and Sandra Stewart, co-founders and co-CEOs of Tribute Entertainment Media Group, Stewart grew up in a big house with a pool in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills. The family took frequent vacations in the Caribbean. “As soon as I figured out how to free-dive and hold my breath underwater, I would start catching things,” he recalls. At 8, he would smash barnacles with a rock and feed their flesh to moray eels. “But I couldn’t catch them. So I put the bait on a tiny fish hook. An eel pulled it out of my hands. And that changed everything for me in a second. It went through so much pain I never fished again. And I’ve never eaten fish. I was always disgusted by the smell.”

Stewart’s parents bought him his first underwater camera when he was 13. While studying biology at the University of Western Ontario (eventually earning his B.Sc. in Kenya), he taught scuba diving and took semesters off to do underwater photography. “I tried to swindle and do contra deals,” he says. By 18, he was scoring free trips from dive operators and airlines in exchange for articles and photos, which he sold to magazines for a song. “I took all this flak from other photographers who were boycotting these magazines, saying they were driving underwater photography into the ground.”

In one of several trips to the Galapagos Islands, after encountering shark “long-lining,” a fishing equivalent to clear-cut logging, Stewart decided to make a movie. Scavenging support from private investors, including his parents’ firm, he rented high-end HD video cameras — “if all else failed I could pull stills from the footage to sell to magazines.”

Spending most of his money on gear, he couldn’t afford to hire a dive boat. So he hitched a ride to the Galapagos on the Sea Shepherd, captained by Canadian eco-pirate Paul Watson, an activist devoted to confronting whalers, sealers and fishermen who violate maritime laws and treaties. Instead of filming sharks, Stewart ended up shooting a skirmish in which the Good Shepherd rammed a boat of shark poachers, then forced it back to Costa Rica. Watson was acting at the request of Costa Rica’s government, says Stewart, but by the time they got to port, the “shark-finning mafia” had applied pressure, and the activists, not the poachers, were arrested.

Told he could face charges of attempted murder, Stewart skipped the country. He later snuck back in to shoot clandestine footage of a dockside finning plant. But he still had no shark footage. Then the project stalled as he was hospitalized in Ecuador with a staphylococcus infection, and came close to losing his leg. But he recovered, sailed back to the Galapagos, and got the underwater money shots.

Stewart later filmed sharkfin markets in Asia, and horrific scenes of fishermen slicing off fins and tossing butchered sharks back into the sea. But he says he had no idea how to tell the story, and his editors kept trying to turn it into an art film. Then he attended a seminar by Hollywood screenwriting guru Robert McKee (notorious from Adaptation), which convinced him to fire his editors and reshape his film with a dramatic formula. He showed a cut to distributors at Alliance Atlantis, who liked it and urged him to put himself on camera. The challenge, says Alliance’s Jim Sherry, was to strike “a balance between human interest and animal interest” — between Shark Boy and sharks.

Swimming with sharks has a daredevil sex appeal. But Stewart downplays the danger, pointing out that his body is riddled with scars from coral, jellyfish — and a python that left a tooth in his bicep — yet not one shark bite. “Sharks do make mistakes and bite people once in a while,” he says, “but only in very rare circumstances does it go beyond that. A six-foot fish can do anything it wants to a human. If we were on the table, so to speak, it would rip us to shreds.” Sharkwater draws on the sinister star power of its subject only to subvert it. Stewart even pursued the director of Jaws for an interview, unsucessfully, then licensed footage from the Jaws DVD in which Spielberg admits he owes his career to sharks. Spielberg, however, vetoed the licence days before Sharkwater’s Toronto film festival premiere. “Jaws was a terrific movie,” Stewart allows. “I’m sure it wasn’t anyone’s intention to villainize a predator for the next 50 years and cause the public to be so afraid they won’t notice when it’s being wiped out. But it’s a shame.” Irked by Spielberg’s evasion, Stewart hasn’t given up on his prey: “Maybe after our movie comes out and does well, we’ll get a hold of him.”