THE DEATH OF ROB STEWART: A TRAGIC LOSS FOR US ALL
When Rob Stewart started his journey, he set out to save the sharks. In the end, he was targeting humanity as the subject of saving.
I reflect to a chapter in Rob’s book Saving the Humans titled “Ninety percent of the time I would have been fine.” This chapter discusses his adventures, or often misadventures, growing up as an animal lover. Out of all the times his parents intervened, only ten percent of the time was it necessary, he says.
January 31, 2017, can be included in that ten percent. Unfortunately for Rob, they weren’t there. So focused on his mission to save the sharks and subsequently us, that he put his own life in jeopardy.
It was on this day that he was, once again, searching for a rare and unusual animal to observe. He was seeking footage of a sawfish for his next documentary Sharkwater Extinction. While it isn’t a shark, it is very similar and also hunted for its fins. Because of finning, habitat destruction, and the tendency to become by-catch to commercial fishing, they are increasingly difficult to find.
Brock Cahill, a long-time friend who accompanied Stewart on his final adventure, said they were looking for sawfish “due to the fact that they are super rare, highly elusive, and extremely interesting creatures.” If you know anything about Rob, you know that he was slightly obsessed with unusual and rare creatures, especially those with gills.
In this case, his quest to inform us led him to the coast of Florida. He set out on the Pisces, a dive boat chartered and crewed by Horizon Dive Adventures, to the Queen of Nassau, an old steamer wreck with a history of its own and a known home of both sawfish and scalloped hammerheads.
While the Queen of Nassau is an established dive site, it rests in approximately 230 feet (70 meters) of water. This is nearly twice the depth limit of recreational diving and thus requires specialized training, equipment, and gasses.
Enter Peter Sotis. He and Rob got in touch after Stewart posted a message on Facebook requesting a trimix rebreather instructor to prepare him for dives up to 300 feet. Peter, the owner of Add Helium, offered to train Rob in the very specialized use of technical rebreathers.
Rebreathers eliminate the loud bubbles on a scuba setup and allow divers to get much closer to marine animals without disturbing them. Rob had used rebreathers before, in fact, you can see him with one on the first documentary, so he wasn’t altogether unfamiliar with the devices. However, he had never used them to dive this deep. Rob accepted Peter’s offer and so began the training, just weeks before his final dive.
Rob and Peter dived the wreck three times that day. A conservative diver might say one dive to 230 feet is enough. Two dives to that depth are considered pushing the limits. The third was an unplanned dive to retrieve a grappling hook used to secure a surface buoy marking the wreck. Sotis, a self-proclaimed leader in the rebreather world, described as consistently pushing limits on Add Helium’s Bio page , decided to do the dive with Rob.
Upon surfacing from this third dive, Sotis exited the water first and collapsed. The crew of the Pisces, perhaps forgetting that Rob might suffer the same fate, turned their attention to Sotis. With their backs against Rob, he lost consciousness and sank to the bottom. His body resting a mere 300 feet from where he was last seen.
It took 3 days to find his body. Though it is said to be the Coast Guard’s largest search in that sector, it was a private dive group that found and retrieved the body, against Florida state law. Conflicting with initial reports, the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department had no involvement in the recovery of Rob’s body.
The owner of Horizon Dive Adventures assembled a small dive team to include a camera-wielding lawyer representing the dive shop’s insurance company. After locating Rob with a submersible and without the required approval of the county medical examiner, the divers recovered the body.
To add even more suspicion, shortly after the incident it became public knowledge that Sotis served three years in prison for armed robbery. He is under investigation for allegedly selling military-grade rebreathers to Libyan militants.
Rob’s parents have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Peter Sotis, Add Helium, and Horizon Dive Adventures hoping to prevent future diving tragedies due to negligence.
Unfortunately, at the moment there are more questions than answers, and it’s difficult to take away anything positive from the situation. The facts of the matter are the world was a better place with Rob in it and the accident, like most dive accidents, was very preventable.
In his relentless pursuit of saving the sharks, the oceans, and the planet, Rob left behind a legacy that we should all aspire to. According to Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark of Dalhousie University,“Rob did more for making shark conservation important than any scientist to date.”
Since his first documentary, over 90 countries have banned shark finning. Fin consumption has been cut in half in Hong Kong. The Chinese government banned shark fin soup at state banquets. His documentaries have influenced government policies around the world.
Hundreds of conservation groups have sprouted up. This includes United Conservationists and Fin Free, which he co-founded with Julie Andersen who quit her job and became a shark activist after watching Sharkwater. The awareness of his work also inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Notable examples include filmmakers Julia Barnes, Natalie Lucier, Madison Stewart and Johan Bryson.
He was not successful in his search for sawfish that day, but an unheard of event happened only after the accident. A diver in Jupiter, Florida filmed a school of over 10 sawfish. It’s almost as if the ocean was commemorating Rob.
Rob wanted us to observe this magnificent creature that we have nearly eradicated so that we could be aware of it’s destruction and perhaps begin to take responsibility for our actions. Above all, Rob wanted us to act: “We can’t put off our responsibility to the planet any longer. The science is clear. It screams DO SOMETHING.”