Rob Stewart spent five years swimming with — and hugging — sharks, but he never felt threatened until he ran into humans.
His brush with death, he told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer, came while the young Canadian filmmaker was working on “Sharkwater,” a documentary to be released in the fall about what he feels is “the most misunderstood creature on Earth.”
“I never had a close call with sharks,” he said. “We spent sometimes 200 days a year underwater with sharks. In the movie, you’ll see people are way more dangerous.”
As a kid, the 27-year-old Stewart had seen the “Jaws” series and read all the hyperventilating headlines about sharks attacking swimmers. “Sharks were that thing that everybody feared when they went to play in the ocean,” he said.
But he also had a fascination with the creatures, and spent a lot of time on family vacations as a “nerdy kid” swimming in the ocean and trying to see a shark. It was an incredibly difficult endeavor. “When I did see one,” he said, “it didn’t want anything to do with me [and] that made me wonder why.”
So five years ago, he set out to make a film about the animals that had so engaged him for so many years. “I started out trying to make a pretty underwater movie about sharks,” he said. But he soon changed his mind about the film’s purpose.
Early in the project, he was sailing aboard the Ocean Warrior, owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, in waters off the Costa Rican coast at the invitation of that government. When the ship was rammed by a boat illegally fishing in Guatemalan waters, everything changed.
“We ended up getting charged with attempted murder in Costa Rica,” he said, explaining that the Taiwanese mafia, which had connections with local officials, was illegally harvesting shark fins. The film’s Web site, sharkwater.com, explains what happened:
“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 coastguard couldn’t jump onboard, and fled to international waters.”
“This was supposed to be a shark film,” Stewart told Lauer. “We ended up running while the coast guard was chasing us with machine guns. It turned into a really different human drama with a shark movie intertwined in it.”
Sharks under attack
Stewart spent his life savings documenting the killing of what he says are 100 million sharks a year by the multi-billion-dollar shark-fin-soup industry. (The soup is a Chinese delicacy.) The sharks are caught, their fins sliced off, and then they are thrown back into the water to die. The dried fins sell for as much as $300 a pound.
Stewart estimates that up to 90 percent of the world’s shark population has been wiped out. Sharks are the oceans’ top predators, he said, and the oceans produce most of the planet’s oxygen and are also the biggest consumers of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
“Disrupting the ecosystems that we depend upon for survival can be absolutely disastrous for all of us,” he said. “The oceans feed most of the planet. It’s a system we can’t mess with.”
His film, which has already won awards, will debut in September. In the meantime, he is traveling to schools, showing kids footage of himself swimming with and embracing sharks and educating them about the importance of protecting the fish.
He says that when sharks bite people, “it’s not a shark attack; it’s a shark mistake … When they bite, they realize they made a mistake, they got something they didn’t want, they let go. It’s really rare for flesh to actually be removed.”
Making conservation ‘cool’
At the same time, he’s not advising anyone to give up tree-hugging and take up shark-hugging.
“You don’t want to go up and embrace any wild animal, be it the business end of a beaver or a shark,” he told Lauer.
He knows he’s fighting a tough battle. Enormous amounts of money are involved, and shark fisheries aren’t going to shut down voluntarily with so much at risk.
Yet, he said, “shark populations are absolutely decimated around the world and nobody seems to notice as they do for pandas and bears.”
His goal is “making conservation cool and accessible to everyone. It’s got to be cool to become a conservationist.”
Ultimately, Stewart told Lauer, bigger things than fish are at stake.
“It’s not sharks or the oceans we need to save now, it’s the very short span that humans survive on the planet that we need to worry about.”