Swimming with the Sharks: Remembering Rob Stewart Two Years After His Death

On January 31st 2017, his body went missing; it was found February 3rd, lying peacefully on the ocean floor only feet from where he was last seen alive.

Toronto-born photographer, film-maker, marine biologist, and conservation activist Rob Stewart is no stranger to diving. The goal of the day is to catch a glimpse of a sawfish among the wreckage of the Queen of Nassau, a century-old Canadian steam ship that sank off the coast of Islamorada. Sawfish, also known as carpenter sharks, are strange-looking and massive -- imagine a flat, 20 foot-long shark with an 8 foot jigsaw blade attached to its head.

Like a great deal of other large marine creatures, they face dwindling numbers due to human factors such as novelty hunting, long-line fishing, ocean acidification, and pollution. They are also incredibly skittish fish. In order for Stewart to get the footage of the illusive sawfish for his upcoming documentary, Sharkwater: Extinction, they will have to dive over 230 feet deep with rebreathers, a silent scuba breathing apparatus that allows divers to go deeper for longer. While Stewart is an expert diver, it is one of his first times using a rebreather. Being unfamiliar with the equipment, Stewart turns to Florida native, scuba company owner, and ex-felon, Peter Sotis. Online, Sotis made claims that with his specialized equipment and instruction, divers could go up to 600 feet deep without atmospheric diving suits. Free divers are at risk of hypoxia at just 200 feet. Oceanic pressure can start to crush free divers at 500 feet.

At this depth (230 feet), it’s typical to limit divers to one dive a day as not to risk decompression illness. Sotis and Stewart go on three dives on January 31st. From all three they resurface, but after their final dive, somehow Rob Stewart goes missing.

I first saw Sharkwater, Stewart’s debut documentary, in sixth grade on a snow day. I sat in a nearly empty classroom, happy to have a day away from the authority of my parents and the doldrum of schoolwork. Little did I expect to have my convictions shaken and values shifted.

One day on the ocean, while cutting sea creatures free from 60 miles worth of long-line baited hooks, Stewart remarked that while they were able to cut 130 sharks free they found over 600 sharks who had died while struggling to escape. The next day he bought a camera, two books on how to make movies, and set out to educate people on what was happening to the sharks he so dearly loved.

Some quick facts about sharks:

  • Sharks have evolved over 400 million years, appearing roughly 200 million years before dinosaurs.
  • Sharks have survived 5 mass extinctions – including the one that killed the dinosaurs.
  • Sharks have six highly refined senses: smell, hearing, touch, taste, sight, and electromagnetism. These finely honed senses, along with a sleek, torpedo-shaped body, make most sharks highly skilled hunters. They often serve as top predators—keeping populations of prey species in check. Removing them in large numbers can have ripple effects that throw entire ecosystems out of balance.
  • More people die annually from vending machines, volcanoes, falling coconuts, hot tap water, champagne corks, and falling out of bed than from sharks.
  • More than 50 percent of shark and ray species that have been fully assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature are Threatened or Near Threatened with extinction.
  • Shark finning refers to the removal and retention of shark fins and the discard at sea of the carcass. The shark is most often still alive when it is tossed back into the water. Unable to swim, the shark slowly sinks toward the bottom where it is eaten alive by other fish.
  • Shark finning has increased over the past decade due to the increasing demand for shark fins (for shark fin soup and traditional cures), improved fishing technology, and improved market economics. Some cultures promote the use of shark cartilage as a way to prevent arthritis, osteoporosis, and various forms of cancer. Sharks are killed to create such products but there is little research to prove that these elements will really help such health concerns.
  • Shark specialists estimate that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins annually.
  • One pound of dried shark fin can retail for $300 or more. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

In Sharkwater, his first documentary, Stewart repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to show the world the injustices that sharks had been enduring at the hand of humans -- specifically the corruption of the shark-hunting industry. In Costa Rica, the Cocos Islands, the Galapagos, and China, Stewart and Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society face pirate boat rammings, gunboat chases, mafia espionage, corrupt court systems, and attempted murder charges, forcing them to flee for their lives. All this in the name of saving the sharks.

In Revolution, Stewart attempts to tackle the greater issue of the deterioration of our planet, commenting on the vulnerability of the world’s ecosystems, the violence that carbon emissions inflict upon the earth, and the malicious ignorance of the world’s largest and most influential governments. What was most particularly shocking and heinous to me was Canada’s hand in pollution production (I’m not going to tell you what we do...but it’s bad).

A massive search-and-rescue effort took place the next three days to find Stewart. Dozens of expert divers from across the continent came to aid in the search, and even the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Richard Branson donated their private planes to provide aerial surveillance. These efforts were all for naught. The autopsy ruled that Stewart died merely minutes after he went missing on the 31st. Cause of death: hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, by way of a shallow-water blackout, a.k.a. drowning.

Many people speculate as to what happened after the third dive. Stewart had been in water ever since childhood and began diving at age 13. At 37, he would have been a seasoned veteran. Given Sotis’ criminal history and dubious claims, many wonder if he had provided Stewart with faulty equipment. Still, a year later and despite Stewart’s parents filing a wrongful-death lawsuit against Sotis, no one can be certain of what exactly went wrong.

More important than how he died is the legacy that he left behind. In Saipan, Micronesia, a sixth grade class at Son Vinciente Elementary collectively wrote a letter to their government after seeing Sharkwater, and consequently Saipan became the second place in the world to ban shark finning. If a class of sixth graders could do that, who is to say what impact the people of the world could accomplish with a little bit more respect and empathy for our oceans’ creatures.

Two years after his death, his message is more important than ever. See the Polar Vortex? See the disappearance of species across the globe? The earth is LITERALLY pleading for us to help and we are ignoring it.

Personally, Rob Stewart is my hero. The shark jaw tattooed on my arm is in his memory and evidence of his influence. It feels so strange to care so deeply for someone you have never met but, nonetheless, his death was devastating to me.

If I could say anything to him, I would say thank you. Thank you for your dedication to the preservation of life on this planet. Thank you for calling out the world’s richest multinational corporations for laying waste to some of our most precious natural resources. Thank you for fighting against greedy and corrupt policy-makers, racist and undemocratic governments, the Alberta oil sands and oil pipelines, industrialized animal agriculture, deforestation, ocean acidification, long-line fishing, and shark finning.

Rob, you’re my hero. In everything I do I hope to keep your legacy alive. I hope in your own personal heaven you really are sleeping with the fishes (especially the sharks).