Pointed issues

Sharkwater shows us these toothy predators – and their sorry state – as never before

There’s a certain kind of person who wants to live life as it appears on the Discovery Channel. Some relish the prospect of paying good money to be locked into a cage full of warm red meat for a face-to-face rendezvous with a great white’s four rows of teeth. Okay then: Vaya con dios.

Until last year, I was borderline phobic. Whether I was swimming in Mexico or in Mozambique or even in Montreal, I was always on the lookout for that telltale fin as the Jaws score trumpeted through my head.

I overcame my fear in order to snorkel the fabled Devil’s Crown last year. But before I donned my fins and mask, I had to ask: “Are there sharks?”
Fabian, the Ecuadorian guide, rolled his eyes.
“Of course there are sharks,” he said.
“Well, what should I do?” I asked.
“What do you mean, what should you do?” “Well, who will keep a lookout for fins? How will we know if one approaches? What should I do if I see one? Let’s keep the dinghy nearby.” I was beginning to panic, but Fabian was used to it.
“Put your face in the water,” he instructed me wearily.

The minute I submerged my mask, I saw them everywhere. White-tipped reef sharks by the dozen, schools of eagle rays, and even the odd hammerhead shimmied around underneath me and lurked in a crevasse directly below. They had been there all along. I understood, then, for the first time, what sharks were really like, and felt my place in nature as never before.

“The only people who are afraid of sharks are people who have never been in the water with them,” says Rob Stewart, the 28-year-old Toronto-based director of Sharkwater. “Once you have a chance to be near them, you immediately understand their beauty. I’ve never met anyone who has swum with sharks who didn’t emerge with a better understanding not only of themselves, but their own place in the world.”

Sharks, indeed, are among nature’s most misunderstood – and undervalued – creatures. Currently, all species of shark are threatened with extinction, signalling a crisis in the oceans. Stewart, a first-time filmmaker and marine biology hobbyist, offers us an intelligent, emotional encounter with these strange creatures.

While sharks are intriguing because they are so alien, in actuality nothing on the food chain resembles us more. Conservationists have traced the impact of shark populations on the health of an ocean and are monitoring what happens when sharks are excluded from an ecosystem – and it’s not pretty. It’s a situation that’s likely to inspire a layman to spring into action.

I first met Stewart last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, and since then he has travelled around North America screening Sharkwater at film festivals and in public places. In Hawaii, the film screened for 6,000 people on Waikiki Beach, an appropriate place to separate fact from myth about Carcharodon carcharias.

If you aren’t enamoured of sharks before you see Sharkwater, you will be after. A school of hammerheads encircling the apex of a volcano near Darwin Island, in the Galapagos Archipelago, is at once a breathtaking image and a terrible one when we learn that the species is near extinction, and that the Galapagos and all shark habitats might soon be irreversibly altered, or destroyed forever.

Sharkwater is the perfect chance for people who are too landlocked, lazy, frugal or fearful to commune with these amazing creatures. Though Stewart’s doc pales next to the real-life experience of swimming with sharks, it is still an adventurous and educational look at the natural balance of oceanic ecosystems and the incontrovertible continuum shared by sharks, people and the planet. It is an impassioned plea for us to stop endangering the future of our oceans with our ignorance, insouciance and acquiescence to the laws of the free market.

In Asia, shark’s fin soup is a traditional dish at weddings and celebrations. The soup requires only the fins, so to save time and money, shark hunters catch them, pull them out of the water, saw off their dorsal fins and toss them back in to falter around without a rudder until they bleed out or die of starvation. This practice, called “finning,” is now banned in 17 countries. In China, there is a movement endorsed by the likes of Jackie Chan and Yao Ming to drive shark’s fin soup out of vogue. Still, finning is not obsolete, and radical political opposition is required. Stewart, for his part, joins the crew of the Sea Shepherd, a ship captained by Greenpeace founder Paul Watson, on a mission to interfere with shark-fin poachers in Costa Rica.

For Watson, Stewart’s dedication to the sharks is an example of the kind of difference one person can make towards environmental conservation.

“Rob is an example of a person who is impassioned about an issue, and he wasn’t content to sit and think about it, he went out and did something about it,” says Watson. “To me, the conservation movement has got to be built on a diversity of approaches, tactics and strategies. We need hundreds of thousands of people addressing diverse issues with the same kind of passion as Rob. For instance, David Wingate in Bermuda – because of that one man, the storm petrel has survived. Because of Dian Fossey, the mountain gorilla of Rwanda was saved. Same with Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees. These are individual people who are making the difference – not governments, not organizations, not the World Wildlife Fund, not Greenpeace. [Individual passions] are the future of the environmental movement.”

For Stewart, formerly a fashion photographer, his film is a political act as well as a labour of love in which he debunks every commonly held misconception about sharks, asserting that they are not, in fact, dangerous or just plain evil.

“People are blinded by their fear, and honestly, I’ve never been able to understand why,” says Stewart, who has been a deepwater diver since his early adolescence. “I still don’t understand how it’s possible for people to be so committed to killing sharks, especially when all scientific evidence says they pose a [negligible] threat to us. More people are killed each year by vending machines falling on them than by shark attacks – it’s hard for me to understand how people could relish the [slaughter] of an endangered species, especially one which is so crucial to our own survival. I guess the only explanation is that a primal fear of this animal has blinded people to how it is being destroyed. A shark, after all, is not cuddly – it feeds into people’s fear of deep water, and it’s a predator.

“Should we wipe all the sharks off the planet, we would plummet our world into unthinkable devastation,” he continues. “But that would never happen. Sharks would repopulate the world, because they are in every ocean of the world – there are sharks under Arctic ice, and in the deepest darkest corners of the ocean, so far out of our reach that they’ll survive virtually anything. Should the Earth be nearly destroyed, they’ll be presented with an opportunity to repopulate the planet, just like they have done for millions of years. Humans have to turn around our thinking and our action if we are to survive on the planet, but we will not destroy the sharks.”

Melora Koepke –