Sharkwater is a devastatingly beautiful film. I'm not exaggerating or being trite when I say this. Point of fact I've chosen my words very carefully. Filmed using high definition technology, the underwater shots in this film are the most stunning I have ever seen. And I have watched hundreds of nature documentaries. Every swooping elegant camera shot beneath the sea made me desperately long to be there. Rob Stewart is a truly gifted photographer.
But this is no plane Jane marine documentary. What begins as a slick underwater adventure quickly turns into an intense human drama. Let's see — there's a boat collision, an undercover operation involving the Taiwanese mafia, the exposure of a trillion dollar black market in fins that is second only to the drug trade, charges of attempted murder, an under the gun chase out of Costa Rica, and even a near death experience for filmmaker Stewart when he was diagnosed with flesh eating disease. Hollywood could not have come up with a more compelling and gripping tale.
While on assignment in the Galápagos, Stewart came across an illegal long line fishing boat inside the reserve. Wanting to change public misconceptions about sharks, he set out to make his own documentary about his favorite animal. He later met and joined forces with renegade activist Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Captain Watson and his crew were embarking on a campaign to stop illegal poaching in the marine reserves of Cocos island in Costa Rica and the Galápagos islands. En route they came across a Costa Rican boat illegally fishing and finning sharks in Guatemalan waters.
Shark finning is the practice of catching large numbers of sharks, cutting off their fins and dumping the rest of the animal back into the ocean, often still alive and unable to swim.
At the request of Guatemalan authorities, the crew of Watson's ship the Ocean Warrior, attempted to bring the fishing boat in for arrest. Caught on camera, the confrontation included the use of water cannons, a ship collision and subsequent news that a Guatemalan gun boat was on its way to arrest the crew of Ocean Warrior instead. Upon arrival in Costa Rica, Stewart and Watson were faced with charges on seven counts of attempted murder.
Fortunately for Stewart and the film, all his footage of the high seas drama was saved by his sheer enthusiasm. "I've never made a movie before and I was so excited to have footage of a boat collision that as soon as I got to Costa Rica I fedexed it home … so by pure coincidence by the time they came to arrest us, the footage was already gone."
What followed was a risky hidden camera venture into the murky world of the Taiwanese mafia and a black market trade in shark fins. Costa Rican authorities had been turning a blind eye to the illegal billion dollar trade thanks to some $92 million dollars in donations to the city of Punta Reina.
The sale of shark fins exists only to appease a growing hunger for, of all things, soup. Originating in China, shark fin soup is a status symbol that has grown enormously in popularity. Demand for the dish has led to a decline in shark populations by over 90% in the last three decades.
A 90% decline in shark population? That is a truly disturbing figure and one that I asked Stewart about during a phone interview. "We got that figure from Dalhousie University and various studies" he informed me. " How we know that kind of information is by knowing how many baited hooks there are and at what depth."
In fact, studies by world renown fisheries biologist Ransom Myers and co-author Julia Baum of Dalhousie University show that the situation has become even more dire than earlier predictions. “Large sharks have been functionally eliminated from the east coast of the U.S., meaning that they can no longer perform their ecosystem role as top predators,” says Baum. “The extent of the declines shouldn’t be a surprise considering how heavily large sharks have been fished in recent decades to meet the growing worldwide demand for shark fins and meat.”
Public awareness and a demand that such practices be stopped is the only hope for the world's top predator turned top prey. Stewart does his best with this film to show the much reviled shark in a new light and to garner our sympathies.
In one of the many scenes of shark finning, a large animal is shown being hauled up onto the the deck of a boat. As it struggles two jovial smiling men hold it down, slice off all of its fins and kick it back into the water. The shark flails about as it tries desperately to swim and eventually sinks and drowns. It is a difficult and heart-wrenching scene to watch that evokes both pity and indignation.
While it seemed utterly hopeless and depressing at some points, the documentary did end on a somewhat promising note. Great protests are shown on the streets of Punta Reina as Costa Ricans demonstrated their outrage at this barbaric practice.
I asked Stewart if he believed there was still hope for sharks. "Yes I think there's hope. We can accomplish great things when we want to. I mean, we've come so far on things like gender equality and human rights and look at what we did to save the whales! If the public gets behind this NOW, then we can change things for the better!"
Stewart's first movie is slick, gripping, and utterly riveting thanks to skilled editing and an amazing soundtrack. This film has "flash" and it has Rob Stewart himself (who happens to be very good looking) as the secondary star attraction. When you're competing with blockbuster popcorn flicks while trying to bring attention to such an important issue, it doesn't hurt to have an uber cool passionate spokesperson. "I've been trying to get people to listen to me talking about sharks for years, I love talking about them."
Sharkwater, I say confidently again, is a devastatingly beautiful film.
Sharkwater opens November 2 in 20 major markets including Los Angeles and New York.