As an award-winning biologist, photographer, conservationist and filmmaker, Rob Stewart leaves many legacies. His most important, though, was his embrace of sharks (in some cases quite literally), showing how beautiful these sea predators are, and how they are now predated themselves.
“He transformed fearsome monsters into beautifully awesome creatures, deserving of both respect and empathy,” writes Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and collaborator on Stewart’s remarkable 2006 documentary Sharkwater. “Rob was a man passionate about sharks. He saw them as beautiful sentient beings whose existence contributes to a healthy oceanic ecosystem.”
Pursuing What He Loved
The 37-year-old died doing what he loved. He went missing January 31, in a dive off the Florida Keys, as part of the work on his film sequel Sharkwater: Extinction. Looking to spot the elusive and endangered sawfish, he used a rebreather – which recycles the carbon dioxide of diver exhalations into breathable air – allowing him to swim without making the bubbles that could scare away the shy and reclusive sharks.
Notoriously difficult to use, the rebreather may have contributed to his death. After surfacing from the third dive of a very long and difficult day, he most likely lost consciousness and disappeared beneath the waves while his dive partner was helped back on the boat and passed out himself.
His body was found after a massive search led by the U.S. Coast Guard. “There are not words,” his sister Alexandra said in a Facebook post. “We are so deeply grateful to everyone who helped search, and happy that Rob passed while doing what he loved. We are working on how best to honour his incredible work.”
Making of a Shark Activist
Born and raised in Toronto, Stewart started photographing underwater when he was 13. By 18 he became a scuba instructor and then earned a degree in biology, studying in Ontario, Jamaica and Kenya.
He spent four years globetrotting as a photographer for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s magazines, going to remote locations and creating indelible images that appeared in media worldwide.
While on assignment in the Galapagos Islands, he discovered illegal shark finning practices, catering to the huge Asian market for shark fin soup. Angered by traditional media’s unwillingness to publicize the cause, Stewart decided at age 22 to take matters into his own hands.
“I thought I had the dream life,” he once said. “I could take pictures of fish and travel the world. It was only when I saw what was happening to the sharks that I realized I couldn’t just sit back and not care. At a certain point you have to take action.”
Entering New Shark Waters
Taking action to protect sharks meant teaming up with Paul Watson and documenting their adventures aboard the Sea Shepherd, getting arrested for attempted murder after ramming poacher boats, and beating deadly diseases such as West Nile, tuberculosis and dengue fever.
Sharkwater premiered to public acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win more than 40 awards at film festivals worldwide. Even more importantly, the awareness raised by the film changed people’s perception of sharks and helped give momentum to the drive to crack down on finning practices.
In Ontario, in 2011, governments across the province voted overwhelmingly to ban the sale and possession of shark fin. The ban was overturned by the province and now there is a renewed drive to get the ban put in place again, using Stewart’s memory as a rallying cry.
The Revolution Comes Next
Stewart’s next documentary, Revolution, released in 2012, warned about worldwide ecological collapse if humankind does not change its ways. The film was shot over four years in 15 different countries and won 19 awards at various film festivals, including the Audience Award for Best Doc at the Atlantic Film Festival and the Most Popular Environmental Film Award at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It was also a runner-up for People's Choice Award Documentary and the highest rated Canadian film at its premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
A Friend to Ecologos
Rob Stewart was a good friend to our team at Ecologos and Water Docs, and a generous mentor to emerging talent. He worked with teenage filmmaker Jonah Bryson on the documentary The Fight for Bala, which was screened at Water Docs last year. Bryson and Stewart had co-director credits on the film that examines a small Muskoka town’s fight to stop a hydro-electric generating station from being built.
Bryson writes in a Facebook post: “I could never thank Rob enough for all he’s done for me over the years. . . . I am thankful for him not only for helping me become the filmmaker I am today but for vigorously fighting for the future of the planet my generation will inherit. Rob has changed the world. Not many can accomplish that.”
A funeral for Rob Stewart will be held in Toronto on Feb. 18, with the public invited to attend. A second celebration of his life will be held in Los Angeles on a later date. There are moves afoot to name a new shark species and a Toronto school after him. Watch the Water Docs Facebook page for updates.