The most arresting footage in Rob Stewart’s Sharkwater shows the young biologist and filmmaker sitting on the sandy bottom of a lagoon in crystal clear water, a shark nuzzling him like an eager puppy. He shot it to make a point – sharks aren’t the relentless, bloodthirsty killers of myth, but smart, curious animals with more reason to be afraid of us than vice versa. But before he was able to get that footage in his camera, he had spent years being arrested and chased by gangsters, and spent a tense week in a hospital bed waiting to find out if flesh-eating disease would require that his leg be amputated.
Toronto-born Stewart has lived in the water most of his life, as long as he’s been fascinated by sharks. He set off to make Sharkwater after conventional activism for the protection of sharks fell on deaf ears, but even then he had set out to film a visual tribute to his favorite animal, not an activist call to arms, but fate intervened mightily.
“When we started filming our efforts to keep ourselves out of prison,” recalls Stewart. “That was the big change. When we came back from shooting the movie I had no real underwater footage but I had corruption and arrest and attempted murder and hospitalizations and machine guns and all of that. So it was a very different movie than the one I tried to make, but it became a much bigger movie, not just about the survival of sharks but about the survival of people and preserving ecosystems we depend on for survival.”
Stewart knows he has to overcome powerful obstacles to get sharks the same sort of protection afforded whales and lions, and not all of it the result of films like Jaws and almost annual media scare stories about shark attacks. The Chinese market for shark fins and shark cartilage, as food and medicine, is one of the prime reasons for the endangerment of every species of shark in the oceans, but he remains obstinately hopeful.
“More than 75 per cent of people surveyed in China don’t know that shark fin soup has shark in it,” Stewart says. “The translation means ‘fish wing soup,’ so I believe enough in humanity that if enough people knew what was going on they would take a different stance, and make much more effective decisions. We’re releasing the movie in China, and the worst case scenario is that it gets shown on public TV which is 35 million or so people, and I think once they see, once the buzz starts happening, more conservation groups start pushing it, I think we can turn it around.”