Brian Burk
Brian Burk

Aug 23. 4 mins

ROB STEWART: THE MAN BEHIND THE CAMERA

Rob Stewart, for those who may not know, is responsible for the documentary Sharkwater. This documentary helped expose the rampant practice of shark finning that is threatening the existence of sharks in our oceans. In turn, I’d like to shed a bit of light on the person that Rob was and what led him on his incredible journey to save the planet.

The Life of Rob Stewart. Where do I begin? I knew of him before I started to write this piece, but I never really took the time to understand him. Truthfully, I had never even watched Sharkwater because documentaries of that nature usually bring my mood down and I thought I knew enough about the subject. It turns out I only knew about the subject because his film brought it to life in the public eye.

After watching his two films and reading his book, Save the Humans, I understand him much more as a person and the impact he is continuing to have on not only our oceans, but the world. So I want to share his amazing story of dedication in hopes that you too will be inspired to participate in his cause and take care of the world you live in.

A Healthy (or not) Obsession with Animals

His childhood was much like most males that grew up before the existence of the internet. Mine was quite relatable. He spent his time catching reptiles and amphibians, and daydreaming about owning a pet dragon. When it came time to be realistic, rather than “riding the back of a dragon,” swimming with sharks crowded his fantasies of achievable events.

Rob was obsessed with animals. His book Save the Humans is packed with humorous stories about past pets and adventurous explorations of nature. He would observe and study all animals that crossed his path, sometimes for days. It wasn’t until he was convinced that he had learned all he could from a creature by observation that he would release or trade it for another.

He especially enjoyed apex predators and creatures with bad reputations. Fearing nothing, he’d grab rattlesnakes by the tale or hop on an alligator without thinking about the consequences just to get a closer look. “The more misunderstood and demonized an animal was, the more I came to appreciate it.”

It’s no wonder he turned to sharks. In his imagination, he likened them to dragons of the undersea world, controlling the oceans. He was nine years-old when he met his first shark snorkeling and for once he was actually afraid of an animal. “The moment I met a shark, my entire world changed. The animal I’d always been fascinated with and fearful of turned out to be a beautiful, sophisticated creature.”

The fear quickly subsided as he realized that sharks are not the evil, menacing creatures they are made out to be. After that experience, he carried on with his adventures. Catching and observing anything that moved. The rarer, the better. Rob had to have two rooms growing up; one for him and his pets and the other for more pets.

On to SCUBA

When he was twelve, he finally got to start a lifelong dream of learning to SCUBA dive. As a family, they studied the theory at home and practiced the skills in their swimming pool. So enthralled with diving, he snuck out of the house that night and put the gear on a tank that the instructor had left for the following day. He proceeded to dive alone in the pool, sitting in the deep end.

When he was finally able to finish the course with dives in Florida, he was mesmerized. “The second I could go underwater and feel like I never had to surface was like finding out I had a superpower.” He could finally observe a marine creature long enough for it to get used to his presence and behave as if he wasn’t there. He made sure diving became part of the family vacations from then on.

His love of sharks strengthened when he went on a shark dive in the Bahamas. “I never wanted to do anything else.” He decided to start working his way up the certification hierarchy once he was old enough. Diving was going to be his life. He became a dive instructor at the age of 18.

With diving came his interest in photography. He toted a camera on his dives very early on. For him, it was another means of observation. This way he could study his subjects after the dive. Eventually this led to his work with the magazine Canadian Wildlife while he earned his BS in biology at the University of Western Ontario

Becoming a Shark Activist

During his time as a photojournalist, he made several trips to the Galapagos, home to some of the most shark-infested waters in the world. It was on one of these trips, on a diving liveaboard, that he witnessed the effects of longline fishing.

He discovered that these lines, which were illegal in the Galapagos, run up to 60 kilometers in length and can hold upwards of 16,000 hooks catching indiscriminately, often times sea turtles and even birds. Most of the catch is unwanted and discarded.

The divers on the liveaboard voted to lose a day of diving and haul in the line. Rob did his best to document the experience with still pictures. The crew and customers removed over one hundred sharks from the line. This is the day that inspired Rob to become a shark conservationist.

Upon returning home, he spent the next year writing stories to bring awareness to the issue. He tried using his photos and his words to raise money for the Galapagos Marine Park. During that year, Rob only collected $1,300 from his efforts. A paltry sum that couldn’t even cover his expenses. He had to find another way. He had to find a means to not only inform people, but to make them act: “I was going to try to end shark finning, and I just had to put all my energy into accomplishing that goal.”

From Photos to Film.

At the age of 22, he began filming Sharkwater. On borrowed money, he teamed up with Sea Shepherd in Los Angeles. He brought with him thirty-five cases of gear. Included was a very expensive rental camera, the instruction manual for the camera, a few books on making movies, and his confidently charismatic personality.

The journey took a few unexpected turns. It includes a maritime battle with poachers, house arrest after being betrayed by the Costa Rican government, running from authorities, and eventually sneaking back into the country that wanted him in prison. Did I mention a flesh-eating virus threatening his leg and life?

Bringing Sharkwater to life proved to be very challenging—taking years longer than anticipated. He returned from the filming to a broken relationship with his girlfriend, dengue fever, West Nile virus and a pile of tapes that he couldn’t even watch because the equipment was far too expensive at the time. In fact, Rob was on the brink of giving up.

Through persistence and his unmatched dedication to save sharks, he slowly made his way across every obstacle in his path. Finally, his dream manifested and the film graced the screens of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006.

What’s The Point?

It was at his film’s preview in Hong Kong that someone asked him what the point in saving the sharks was if all fish stocks are predicted to be gone by 2048. He didn’t know how to respond. While this information has since been refuted, Rob couldn’t stop thinking about it. Rob’s focus broadened.

What started as a mission to save sharks became a mission to save the ocean. Without the ocean, there could be no humans. He thought people would be more likely to make a difference if they knew they were fighting for themselves.

Armed with newfound inspiration, he set out to make another film, this time focusing on the enormous carbon footprint of man and the resulting ocean acidification. He made his second documentary, Revolution, which focused on the fight to save the planet from our own hands.

Revolution premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, just as successful as its counterpart. Both films have received numerous international awards. The public awareness they provided has helped change government policies around the world. Though it may not be as adventurous as Sharkwater, it is equally as insightful and inspiring.

Rob Stewart dedicated his life to conservation and environmental education. It’s challenging to do him justice in a short article about his life. This is the first of three articles this month to honor his third film’s posthumous release. Sharkwater Extinction will premier at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival this September and opens in theaters October 5. Please visit the official site to view the trailer.

Sources and References

Stewart, Rob. (2012). Save the Humans. Random House of Canada.

Sharkwater Productions Inc. — https://www.sharkwater.com/sharkwater-extinction/rob-stewart-biography/

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