Perfect predator has become prey

Rob Stewart is not a normal man and Sharkwater is not a normal debut documentary.

The Toronto underwater photographer loves sharks. He always has. Where rational human beings might choose to stay out of any water they inhabit, Stewart likes to get close. Blessed with no known nerves and an ability to lower his heart rate to 40 beats per minute, he gets close enough to the ancient ocean beasts to hug them. If they had arms, they’d be hugging him back.

This all flies in the face of conventional wisdom about sharks. Sharks are not huggable. Sharks get up in your face and bite it and have been doing so since ascending to the top of the food chain in their given habitat 400 million years ago.

Stewart set about making Sharkwater five years ago to show sharks have been given a bad rap, that they kill fewer people every year than vending machines, that their position in the ecological seesaw of things is vital to our own continued health on the planet. He wanted to make a pretty underwater movie about sharks.

What he found is that the worldwide shark population is being actively and illegally decimated to provide ingredients for shark fin soup and some traditional medicines for the booming Asian market.

The numbers are staggering. An estimated 100 million sharks a year of every variety are being caught on long lines, divested of their fins and pitched back into the sea to die. As much as 90 per cent of the shark stock has disappeared in the last 50 years to feed a multi-billion dollar trade second only to cocaine in illicit trafficking.

Stewart’s devastating footage of sharks caught and mutilated is one thing. What he personally went through during filming – flesh-eating disease, dengue fever, West Nile virus, TB, no money, pirated boat rammings, Mafia espionage, corrupt officials, attempted murder charges – is worthy of its own movie.

For all the high drama, Stewart keeps his eye on the prize. Sharks are the focus here, and their sudden role reversal from predator to prey. Stewart is rightfully incensed that a creature so perfectly adapted to its environment could survive the Earth’s history of mass extinctions, including the dinosaur, only to be annihilated by a few years of human greed.

They could have the last laugh, however. Unless socio-political awareness ramps up at a ferocious speed, they’ll be gone, the oceanic balance will be seriously screwed up and a rather large source of our oxygen with it. Sharkwater has done its part of the job. It’s our turn now.
Published: Friday, March 23, 2007

Sharkwater Rating 4 1/2
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007