Died after videotaping sharks around wreck of former Canadian flagship
KEY WEST, Florida––Sharkwater documentary series filmmaker Rob Stewart, 37, died on January 31, 2017 after his third deep dive of the day to the wreck of the Queen of Nassau, near Alligator Reef off Islamorada, Florida.
“Stewart and a small group of divers were filming the next installment of Sharkwater,” recounted Keys Reporter editor David Goodhue. “He and a colleague resurfaced about 5:15 p.m. and the other diver got onto their dive boat boat, The Pisces,” a well-known rental dive boat named for the Zodiac sign of two circling fish, “and passed out. When the boat crew went to retrieve Stewart, he was no longer in sight. According to an email from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, colleagues think Stewart passed out as well and floated off.
Was using “rebreather”
“Captain Jeffrey Janszen, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Key West, confirmed a Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department dive team found Stewart about 300 feet from his last known position,” reported Goodhue.
“Stewart was using rebreathing diving equipment instead of conventional compressed air scuba tanks,” Goodhue added. “Rebreathers recirculate the diver’s air by passing it through a scrubbing pad, which takes out the carbon dioxide. The devices have advantages, especially when filming wildlife, particularly the lack of bubbles to scare off fish. But they also pose more risk to a diver’s safety than conventional scuba tanks.”
Former HMCS Canada
Tyler MacLeod, a fellow Canadian film producer and friend of Stewart since the seventh grade, who helped to direct the search operation, told Entertainment Tonight that Stewart had never before dived to the 225-foot depth of The Queen of Nassau wreckage.
Launched in 1904 as the HMCS Canada, The Queen of Nassau was flagship of the then newly formed Canadian navy until supplanted by two heavy cruisers in 1910. Fighting in World War I, the HMCS Canada happened to be in port on December 6, 1917, and helped in rescue operations after two other ships collided nearby, touching off an ammunition explosion that killed more than 2,000 people. Sold to civilian use and renamed in 1920, The Queen of Nassau sank in 1926 and is now a coral reef known as a haunt of big sharks.
“Harder and harder to find sharks”
“They were going deeper than Rob had gone before,” MacLeod said, “because in his eyes, it was getting harder and harder to find sharks” to film.
“It’s extremely rare that even experienced divers are qualified to do that kind of dive,” commented Stewart’s sister Alexandra. “The other fellow who was on the same final dive appears to have lost consciousness when he surfaced, so it might have been too much diving in a certain window. It’s hard to speculate.”
Rob Stewart had “a deep love for the ocean, wildlife, our planet and people, and trying to make the world a better place,” Alexandra Stewart added, “and he really saw this as where he could make his unique mark, and I think we’ve seen that over his life. What he did [to stop] shark finning and illegal fishing has been tremendous.”
Previous close calls
Vancouver-based environmental filmmaker and author Michael Parfit told media that Stewart routinely took risks as a diver because he was “so driven to know these animals [sharks] and transmit what he knows to the public.”
Recalled Diane Peters in an obituary for the Toronto Globe & Mail, “Stewart did things that few others ever attempt. He went scuba diving with sharks of numerous species, often stroking and even hugging them. He also took a lengthy free dive – no oxygen tank, just holding his breath – with sharks,” and “climbed a building to film illegally obtained shark fins drying on a roof. His boat was chased out of Costa Rican waters by men with guns,” Peters wrote. “He contracted a flesh-eating disease after sustaining cuts on his body from diving,” and fought off dengue fever, West Nile virus, and tuberculosis contracted during his filmmaking travels.
Searched region the size of Connecticut
The intensive, immediate search that followed The Pisces’ first report of Stewart’s disappearance “included two Coast Guard helicopters, agency airplanes, and several boats,” said Goodhue, along with “scores of other people with their own boats and aircraft. Rescuers,” including a vessel dispatched from Miami by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, “searched almost 6,000 square miles of ocean — about the size of Connecticut,” before Stewart’s remains were discovered, only minutes after the Coast Guard called off official involvement.
Born on December 28, 1979, in Toronto, Rob Stewart was son of Tribute Entertainment Media Group founders Brian Stewart and Sandra Campbell. “Obsessed with animals from a young age,” Peters wrote, “Rob got his first goldfish around four. He saw his first shark at the age of eight, and fell in love. When he was 13, he insisted his entire family, including elder sister Alexandra, get scuba diving certifications. He got his first underwater camera at the age of 14, learned to free dive at a young age, and got his scuba instructor certification at 18.”
Sharkwater was first film
Studying biology at Western University, Stewart did field work in Kenya and Jamaica, then became a photographer “for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s magazine, which was published at the time by his parents’ company,” Peters said. “He wanted to have more of an impact, though, so he bought a video camera and devoured a book on how to make movies, which a girlfriend gave him. He began shooting [the first episode of] Sharkwater in 2002.”
Taking four years to make, Sharkwater premiered in 2006 at the Toronto International Film Festival, went on to win more than 40 awards at film festivals around the world, and grossed more than $1.6 million worldwide.
Stewart’s second film documentary, Revolution, won 19 film festival awards and was the top-grossing Canadian documentary of 2013. His third documentary, The Fight for Bala, followed in 2015.
Sharkwater & Sea Shepherds
Stewart also founded his own environmental advocacy organization, United Conservationists. But it was Sharkwater that had the most enduring influence.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, prominent in marine life conservation for nearly 10 years before Stewart was born, “has his own hit U.S. reality TV series, Whale Wars, that has aired on the Discovery Channel since 2008 about his organization’s fight against Japanese whalers,” observed Thomas Adamson of Associated Press in May 2016, but “his influence reached new heights with Sharkwater,” in which Sea Shepherd work against shark finning was featured.
Watson charged with attempted murder
Season five of Whale Wars debuted on June 1, 2012 with Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson awaiting an extradition hearing in Germany, having been arrested in Frankfurt on May 13, 2012 on a 10-year-old Costa Rican warrant as he tried to board a flight to attend the Cannes film festival in France.
The warrant was issued after the Sea Shepherds during the making of Sharkwater intercepted a Costa Rican vessel that was allegedly catching sharks, cutting off their fins for sale to Asian buyers, and tossing the rest of the still living sharks overboard.
The Guatemalan government sent a gunboat to obtain the release of the fishing vessel, while Costa Rica charged Watson with attempted murder.
Now lives in France
Alleging that the charges were originally an extortion attempt, and that the warrant was revived through the influence of the Japanese government, Watson eventually jumped bail in Germany, forfeiting $295,000 rather than take the risk that Costa Rica might win the extradition attempt, then turn him over to Japan.
Watson then remained out of public view for more than a year. He was eventually granted political asylum in France.
Hong Kong shark fin traffic down by half
The popularity of Sharkwater in Hong Kong and mainland China meanwhile was credited with helping to cut the Hong Kong shark fin traffic by more than half, after the documentary repeatedly aired on Chinese state television.
“Hong Kong is the Grand Central Station in the shark fin trade,” Stewart told Joyce Woo of Associated Press. Receiving shark fin from fishing fleets around the world, relaying most of it into mainland China, Hong Kong was the world’s top importer of shark fin in 2007, taking in 10,209 metric tons.
The most recent available data shows that Hong Kong imported 5,412 metric tons of shark products in 2013. The difference amounts to the lives of about five million sharks.
“I was honored to know such an inspiring and genuine individual,” said longtime Canadian animal advocate Cara Sands. “Swim forever free.”