Sharks have long stirred hostility and anxiety in humans. Countless books, films and sensationalized headlines have made the mere idea of “shark” synonymous with images of vicious attacks by indiscriminate killing machines. “The truth is that sharks have much more to fear from us,” says filmmaker Rob Stewart, who has spent years filming hundreds of hours of videotape trying to prove just that to a skeptical public.
Toronto-born Stewart, an expert diver and underwater photographer, joined members of the Los Angeles-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society aboard the Ocean Warrior for a four-month expedition to deter shark poaching in Costa Rica and Ecuador – the perfect opportunity to start filming his documentary on the relationship between sharks and people. A series of life and death situations including pirate boat rammings, attempted murder charges, arrests, espionage, corruption and hospitalization were the last things he expected on his journey that has become the beautiful and revealing film, Sharkwater.
Stewart has had a life-long fascination with sharks. At the age of eight, while free diving in the Cayman Islands, his dream came true when around the corner of a reef he saw his first shark close-up. “I was amazed because it was so cool to see something so big and so powerful and so perfect,” said Stewart. During extensive study, he learned that sharks have shaped the evolution of ocean species, giving rise to schooling behavior, camouflage, speed, size and communications. Far from the public perception of sharks as indiscriminant predators with no purpose outside of attack, they have been an integral part of ocean life for 400 million years. Despite surviving for longer than any other large animal on earth, their populations are being wiped out. “No one wants to save sharks—they want to save pandas and elephants, and they’re afraid of sharks.” Stewart’s original vision was to make a beautiful underwater film about sharks, which quickly changed into a human drama.
Frustrated by the widespread misconceptions and driven to change them, Stewart embarked on a journey that would prove exciting, invigorating, satisfying and dangerous—often at the same time. “I was working as a wildlife photographer and had published articles on what was happening to sharks around the world after I discovered illegal shark fishing in the Galapagos. We set up a fund where people reading the articles could donate money towards placing a patrol boat in the Galapagos Islands. We received virtually no money, and I realized there’s got to be a better way to reach people. Print clearly wasn’t the most powerful medium I could be using, so I decided to make a film.”
In April of 2002, Stewart teamed up with world-renowned conservationist Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society on an excursion aboard their ship, Ocean Warrior. Invited by the Costa Rican government to patrol the waters around the Island of Cocos, Stewart expected to film sharks underwater, not realizing that he would be thrown into a situation where everything that could go wrong, would go wrong.
In addition to the usual challenges a first-time filmmaker faces, Stewart endured situations that would exhaust even a seasoned documentarian. Stewart recalls, “on our way to Cocos Island we intercepted the Varadero, a fishing boat illegally long lining in Guatemalan waters.” That incident set Stewart’s film into an entirely new direction. He explains, “I never got into the water for the first month there, so my underwater documentary dreams were crushed. I realized this was a really fascinating story, and decided to film everything that was going on.”
The focus had now changed and the stakes were considerably higher. Sharks are caught for their fins, and despite some countries having banned shark finning, shark poaching is rampant because of how profitable it is. One pound of dried shark fin can retail for $300 dollars or more. Prized in Asia as a delicacy, shark fin soup has generated a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry, where more than 100 million sharks are killed each year. The process of “finning” involves cutting off the shark’s fins, after which the rest of the body is thrown overboard, wasting over 95 per cent of the animal.
“When we arrived in Costa Rica, the Ocean Warrior was charged with seven counts of attempted murder for the altercation with the Varadero, despite the fact that the president of the country invited us there,” notes Stewart. “Everyone else involved was wondering why the whole judicial system was attacking us, and ignoring the illegal fishing boat. While on shore, we had a chance to find out more about the shark finning operations.”
Stewart learned that although shark finning is illegal in Costa Rica, Costa Rican fins were showing up all over Asia. Extensive research uncovered a connection between the Taiwanese mafia and the shark fin supply. With the help of an insider, Stewart went undercover to investigate the shark fishing industry in Costa Rica, finding out that illegal shark finning was rampant along Costa Rican coasts. “There were millions of dollars in fins in dozens of illegal shark finning operations that the authorities were ignoring,” explains Stewart. “After being chased and threatened by operators with guns, our guide admitted that the ‘shark-fin mafia’ was on the lookout and it would not be a good idea to be seen in town.”
After spending weeks fighting attempted murder charges in Costa Rica, Stewart and the crew of the Ocean Warrior fled Costa Rica to avoid arrest. In an epic chase, they wrapped barbed wire around their boat so the coast guard couldn’t jump onboard, and fled to international waters. Narrowly escaping arrest, they headed to the Galapagos Islands, where they were invited by the National Park to protect the marine reserve from illegal fishing.
Guns and shark fin traffickers proved to be only a few of many dangers Stewart was to face. Although not sure how he contracted it, his lymphatic system had become infected with what is known as “flesh eating disease” and he was in danger of losing his leg and possibly his life. At this point he was unsure whether the film would ever be completed. “This was the ultimate low. Everything had gone wrong. We’d been kicked out of virtually all the countries we had been to. I would have been arrested if I went back to Costa Rica, and at the end of all this, I had not shot anything underwater. I had come to shoot an underwater documentary and instead shot this human drama. And now I was going to lose my leg, maybe my life. The situation was so bad, and I couldn’t tell everybody at home what exactly was happening. I also hadn’t made the movie I’d wanted to make yet, or spent any time underwater with sharks. So much was left to be done. It would have been crazy to give up at that point. So I stayed in hospital for a week and eventually the infection cleared up and off I went again,” notes Stewart. “I was very lucky.”
Having come so far, stopping at this point was not an option for Stewart: “I needed to get back into Costa Rica and find a way to stop the finning.” Knowing he would be arrested immediately, Stewart had to sneak back into the country by bus. What he returned to was far from expected. Protesters lined the streets, demonstrating against shark finning and the illegal fisheries they had exposed with the attempted murder case. According to Stewart, “Costa Ricans were rallying for sharks… I realized our adventure had helped to awaken a country.”
With the world starting to rally for sharks, Stewart was ready to return home to Canada and start editing his movie. Before much of the work could be done, however, Stewart had to get well from the many illnesses acquired while shooting—diagnosed with Dengue Fever, West Nile virus and TB at the same time, there was not much energy available to focus on Sharkwater. “I fought that off for a year while doing little trips and hibernating trying to get better. The internal time actually led to the development of the shark concepts and the theories that make up the body of Sharkwater.”
Stewart spent the next four years on Sharkwater, shooting over 400 hours of footage, in 15 different countries, and editing and crafting the story along the way. “I had to learn virtually everything about filmmaking as I went, so my learning curve was incredibly steep.”
Despite the numerous challenges, Stewart has combined his extraordinary underwater imagery with a compelling original soundtrack composed by Jeff Rona (featuring music from Moby, Nina Simone, Portishead, Aphex Twin and more) and interviews with renowned experts to create his first feature film, Sharkwater.