Sharkwater Extinction: Resurrecting a son on-screen

Movies: Sharkwater Extinction

Shattered by their son Rob’s death in a diving accident, Sandy and Brian Stewart found inspiration in his message and turned pain into positive action by completing the film he died trying to make.

By Katherine Monk

VANCOUVER — “There was no way this movie was not going to be made.” The very statement is an act of defiant optimism in a world where the majority of endeavours fail to even reach production, let alone completion. For Brian and Sandy Stewart, however, defiant optimism was the very essence of their son’s message, which is why they dedicated the last 20 months of their heartbroken lives bringing Sharkwater Extinction to fruition.

The movie isn’t just a tribute to their late son, Rob, 37, who died in a diving accident off the Florida Keys in January 2017. “It’s the continuation of his mission,” says Brian Stewart, sitting with his wife Sandy on the eve of Sharkwater Extinction’s western premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival. “We owe it to him and we owe it to his legacy to make sure his message gets delivered: That we find a way to live in balance with nature, and save our oceans, and ultimately, save mankind. Rob had amazingly lofty goals. But he really believed that if we could work together, the world could be a paradise for all living creatures — not just us.”

That core message was at the heart of Rob Stewart’s previous two films, Sharkwater — which remains one of the highest-grossing documentaries in Canadian history as it exposed the waste and cruelty in the multi-million-dollar shark-finning industry — and Revolution, which explored the ways in which all of us can shape the world through personal action.

Taking responsibility and working together for change is also the fundamental idea at the heart of Sharkwater Extinction, a deep water sequel that goes beyond finning, and into the industrial harvesting of multiple shark species. Thousands upon thousands of mako, blue and salmon sharks are being warehoused in Japan and around the world. As fish stocks decline, shark meat is now finding its way into the processed food and cosmetics stream, almost entirely without our knowledge. This isn’t just a threat to the survival of the species, it’s a threat to human health: Shark meat is toxic as a result of the accumulation of ambient pathogens in their cells.

Taking responsibility and working together for change is also the fundamental idea at the heart of Sharkwater Extinction, a deep water sequel that goes beyond finning, and into the industrial harvesting of multiple shark species.

Sharkwater Extinction is a cogent, compelling and finally tragic warning to us all: If the sharks die, the oceans die, and if the oceans die, we’re all bound for extinction. It’s the very same message that scientists around the world chorused in their recent report on Climate Change. We’re all in it together, regardless of the spin doctors and their narcotizing prescription of maintaining the status quo.

It’s all depressing, overwhelming and for many, paralyzing. Sandy says Rob always wanted to accentuate the beautiful possibilities instead of getting bogged down in the endless resistance and political rhetoric that accompanies all bids for massive change.

“Rob never wanted to be judgmental,” she says. “He said people can’t hear you if you’re screaming… He thought it was better to just show people and lead by example. He never preached. He just took you on the adventure and you absorbed it, and had your own thought process on that trip.”

“Rob never wanted to be judgmental,” she says. “He said people can’t hear you if you’re screaming…”

Brian Stewart says he finds it harder to withhold judgment, especially when it comes to his own peers. He says as a member of the boomers, he’s part of a generation that’s done nothing but “accumulate, accumulate, accumulate.”

“It’s still frustrating, when I see my peers order tuna… We talk about it. Do they realize what they are consuming? …I say you can’t do this, guys. But that’s what they’re habituated to, and they are ignorant. And that’s really, in some ways, very frustrating for me. Their ignorance is causing the demise of the world’s longest-lasting predator.”

When Brian Stewart speaks, his voice cracks every so often. Urgency and grief inflect every word. Except when he talks about Rob, the kid who asked for science textbooks as birthday presents when he was eight, and became one of the youngest certified divers at 13. “There wasn’t any shark Rob wasn’t comfortable diving with. There wasn’t any shark he was afraid of. Great whites, anything,” says Brian. “He had no fear.”

When Brian Stewart speaks, his voice cracks every so often. Urgency and grief inflect every word. Except when he talks about Rob, the kid who asked for science textbooks as birthday presents when he was eight, and became one of the youngest certified divers at 13. “There wasn’t any shark Rob wasn’t comfortable diving with. There wasn’t any shark he was afraid of. Great whites, anything,” says Brian. “He had no fear.”

Indeed, the most memorable images of Rob Stewart are those of him swimming with sharks, playing with them, touching them, holding onto those iconic dorsal fins and going for a ride. It’s why Billy Bush dubbed him “Shark Boy.”

“He originally called him the ‘Shark Hunter,’ but Rob didn’t want to be the hunter — he didn’t hunt sharks. He loved them, and he believed if he could show people how beautiful these animals were, everyone would want to protect them with the same passion.”

Brian Sandy Rob Stewart Sharkwater

Happier Times: Rob, Sandy and Brian Stewart make a festival appearance. Tribute.ca is movie marketing website the Stewarts founded. Photo Courtesy of Tribute.ca.

At one point, the Stewarts tried to use their entertainment marketing backgrounds to contact Steven Spielberg, hoping he might issue a statement similar to author Peter Benchley’s, expressing his regrets over demonizing an innocent fish in the name of entertainment and commerce.

“Jaws really did give sharks such a bad name… it pretty much signed the death warrant for the species. But Spielberg’s people pushed back really hard. So we didn’t get that, but Rob’s already changed so much for sharks.”

“…Jaws really did give sharks such a bad name… it pretty much signed the death warrant for the species….”

Thanks to Sharkwater, shark fins are now banned in close to 200 countries, with more joining the movement every year. And now thanks to Rob Stewart and his Team Sharkwater Worldwide, even the unreleased film has already spurred political change. Footage Stewart shot off Los Angeles showing sharks and mammals drowning slowly in drift nets forced the hand of California legislators, who finally passed a ban on the practice.

“Rob would be pleased. It was hard for him to watch these animals suffer. He was in awe of them.”

Brian says Rob’s confidence with the sharks was enough to convince he and Sandy to go shark diving, too, and like so many things Rob brought into their lives, it changed their world. “Rob taught us stuff as much as we taught him. When you go out into the world in the name of conservation, you bring things back that are harsh — that we didn’t know about. But his perspective on the world, he was always optimistic.”

She remembers his beaming smile, especially near the water. “Rob loved the water… He’d be the first one in and the last one out.”

Sharkwater Extinction takes us on his final dive, a day Rob set out to photograph sawsharks at a depth of 70 meters. He was using a helium rebreather for the first time, and upon resurfacing, apparently lost consciousness from a lack of oxygen. They recovered his body three days later.

Sharkwater Extinction takes us on his final dive, a day Rob set out to photograph sawsharks at a depth of 70 meters. He was using a helium rebreather for the first time, and upon resurfacing, apparently lost consciousness from a lack of oxygen. They recovered his body three days later.

“Rob had used rebreathers before, but this was the first time using helium technology. And the first time going to that depth,” says Brian. “So many mistakes were being made. And that’s the tragedy. He never should have died.”

The Stewarts launched a wrongful death lawsuit in the wake of the tragedy. They also looked at the 400 hours of raw footage Rob already had in the can.

“There was never any question, after the initial shock of the accident, there was nothing we wouldn’t do. I think Sandy and I and our daughter and our son-on-law, we had a talk and decided we couldn’t let it go unfinished. Rob would not want that. And that was a really tragic accident, but Rob would want to make sure the film got made,” says Brian.

The next matter was finding someone to step in and assume Rob’s place, and his unique voice. They found Nick Hector, an award-winning editor who was touched and honoured to get the call.

“The hard part was how do you make a Rob movie without Rob? His voice is a big part of his work, but in going back and looking at the footage, we saw how much of Rob there was there. So we found Rob, and we found his notes in his iPad, and they were so detailed. He had outlines of scenes, and arcs and storylines and what messaging he wanted to achieve with each scene, and how to get it. So Nick really created the movie that Rob designed with Sharkwater Extinction,” she says. “It also gave us something to focus on while we were really suffering.”

“The hard part was how do you make a Rob movie without Rob? His voice is a big part of his work, but in going back and looking at the footage, we saw how much of Rob there was there. So we found Rob… It also gave us something to focus on while we were really suffering.”

The Stewarts say they’re still waiting for the tragedy to really hit. “I think we’re all waiting to grieve,” says Brian. “It’s been 19, almost 20 months, and I’m sure at some point, you never know when it hits, but at some point it will hit that he’s gone. But every time we see him on screen….”

They feel him. The Stewarts and just about everyone who worked on Sharkwater Extinction say they felt some kind of presence helping them through. “There were transition points in the film where we were struggling with certain aspects of what was going on… and in some strange way, a solution would appear. We’d all think it was Rob guiding us, and that holds true for everyone. They all have unique experiences and felt Rob was getting them through situations. Nick has never even worked on a film like this his whole life… but he got Rob, and felt guided by Rob.”

Julie Andersen and Brock Cahill can attest to the feeling. Friends, colleagues and fellow Sharkwater Team members, the couple actually found each other through Rob. “We feel him. He’s a presence. Our lives changed when we met him,” says Andersen.

Friends, lovers, partners: Julie Andersen and Brock Cahill are doing what they can to get the Sharkwater Extinction message to the masses.

“I was running a successful ad agency in New York when I saw Sharkwater, and I actually stuck around after the chat to talk to him. I never do that. And I just said, hey, I can help. Four days later I was in Toronto with a ton of ideas about how to get the word out.”

Cahill was a Yoga teacher in Los Angeles. “I saw Rob on the cover of a magazine free diving with sharks and called him out of the blue and offered to help. He came on a yoga retreat with me in Mexico and spent hours in the water, free-diving with sharks.”

“I look back at everything good in my life now, from my job to my friends to where I live, and all of those things are because of Rob,” says Andersen. “It’s a huge huge loss not to have him. But we have each other, and we have the mission.”

“I look back at everything good in my life now, from my job to my friends to where I live, and all of those things are because of Rob,” says Andersen. “It’s a huge huge loss not to have him. But we have each other, and we have the mission.”

“Rob was the voice of the movement, and to lose that light and guidance and will to change through love is tragic. We won’t ever have anyone else quite like that. He was our hero and our friend. But we’re here to shine his light and to continue. He had a lot of ideas and a lot of projects, and a lot of incredible footage.”

Cahill and Andersen are both founders of their own conservation organizations, and both are using their respective resources to aid Sharkwater Extinction in reaching its goal of finding a worldwide audience. “We owe it to him to keep going, and hopefully, inspire others to join us. He was inclusive. He was joyful. He worked so hard to bring everyone together. He knew that was the only way we were going to make any real change. Robbie had an amazing ability to reset, he stayed focused. And he’s inspiring us still, because he really believed in the possible.”

Sharkwater Extinction Opens theatrically in Canada October 19th. For more information on the movie and the movement, please visit https://www.sharkwater.com

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, October 16, 2018

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