M&C Interview: Filmmaker Rob Stewart talks sharks and underwater adventure

For filmmaker Rob Stewart, exploring sharks began as an underwater adventure. What it turned into was a beautiful and dangerous life journey into the balance of life on earth.

Driven by passion fed from a lifelong fascination with sharks, Stewart debunks historical stereotypes and media depictions of sharks as bloodthirsty, man-eating monsters and reveals the reality of sharks as pillars in the evolution of the seas.

Filmed in visually stunning, high definition video, Sharkwater takes viewers into the most shark rich waters of the world, exposing the exploitation and corruption surrounding the world’s shark populations in the marine reserves of Cocos Island, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

In addition to this spectacular film, the DVD and Blu-Ray contain extra content including the featurette “Sharkwater: Beneath the Surface”; the theatrical trailer; “Shark Defense (Vintage Naval Training Video)” (DVD Only); TV Spots (DVD Only); the featurette “The Making of Sharkwater” (Blu-Ray only); and interview with filmmaker Rob Stewart (Blu-Ray only). 

Since its release earlier this year, Sharkwater has received 26 awards from international film societies who have labeled it one of the years finest. Sharkwater is now available in both Blu-Ray and DVD formats through Warner Home Video at the film’s official site at www.Sharkwater.com, as well as retail outlets. 

Rob Stewart, the man whose devotion to nature led him on this harrowing international journey, took a few minutes to talk to Monsters and Critics about his experiences in the four year process of making the documentary.

M&C: Congratulations on the release of the film on DVD and for all the awards it’s received. 

Stewart: Thank you. 

M&C: How did you get your start in all of this? I know you’ve been doing photography for several years. What got you into the business of nature photography and what got you interested in that? 

Stewart: I’ve been interested in it ever since I was a kid chasing creatures catching fish I graduated with a degree in marine biology but I quickly realized that being a marine biologist would keep me stuck behind a desk and not doing what I wanted to do.

I started taking pictures underwater when I was 13 and just sort of figured, somebody needed to be an underwater photographer so why not me? So I grabbed that with everything ahead. 

The whole idea for the movie came from when I took photos at the Galapagos Islands and found 200 dead sharks on 100 km of beach and that’s what made me realize that sharks, in all their majesty, are being killed and nobody knew about it. They are all afraid of them. And so I thought if I made a movie, maybe I could get people to think about the sharks. 

M&C: You were trying to push some sort of awareness out to the people who don’t know about this. 

Stewart: In the beginning it was mostly about changing people’s perspectives on sharks. 

M&C: Where do you think that gap in knowledge comes from? 

Stewart: Most of our world policies and concerns lie with things that are not in the ocean, but there is also a fundamental gap in knowledge on the way the world works, and ecosystems, and people don’t realize that we’re part of the ecosystem and that we are not separate from that natural world, but a real part of it.

When a species is destroyed it can have a real effect on the world that we live in. It’s not whether sharks are going to be okay, because they’ve been here for thousands of years. They are going to be fine. It’s about this young species it’s only been here 100,000 years.

People feel sort of removed from the situation, but if they knew the conservation was not just about saving trees anymore but rather about saving people, I think they would have a very different approach to. 


M&C: What were some of the technical challenges that you faced while filming underwater and filming the movie in general?  

Stewart: Shooting some underwater was the one thing that I was banking on knowing how to do. I’ve never used a video camera underwater but I figured if I can take pretty still pictures that I can take pretty moving ones as well.  And so jumped into the whole thing and it worked out so that I don’t underwater and the cameras are huge. 

The whole thing weighs almost 200 pounds, and when you go underwater all of the light is filtered out: orange, yellow, green and blue. And when you get far enough under water there is no other color but blue, and so you get those colors back by adding natural lighting underwater.

Also, we filmed the movie in over 15 different countries over 4 1/2 years and we had a lot of technical roadblocks and a lot of pitfalls.

M&C: How do you approach people who make their living from fishing for sharks? Do they have any reservations about the effect that killing sharks has on the ecosystem? 

Stewart: Do the sharks have any reservations? 

M&C: The people. 

Stewart: Most people fishing for sharks don’t … it’s just like anything else. They are extorting a resource just like somebody here would extort another resource. That kind of thing.

There’s very rarely any sort of consciousness around it, but there has been some controversy involving the finning of sharks, and so people are tired of hiding that part of it and they don’t want others to know that they’re taking part in it. But most people don’t know a thing about it. They don’t hear the science behind it.

M&C: How big of a part do you think politics will play in helping the sharks survive? 

Stewart: Politics is huge when it comes to that. Without that you have no protection. People only protect what they like, like all of the animal species that are on the endangered species list. All of those are the most charismatic about protecting the specific animals.

Sharks are actually very endangered as well being that there are over 500 species, but not having them on those lists is a big deal. We need public awareness most so that the government recognizes what people want and there is some sort of public pressure. 

M&C: What sort of positive things have you seen come out of the release of the film, even though it’s only been a year since it debuted.

Stewart: Five days into the film’s release in Costa Rica, the government there put a ban on the landing of sharks. About six new conservation groups have been started by people who watched Sharkwater and wanted to make a difference.

I was just at an event last night in New York with a group of people called “sharksavers” started by someone who saw the film and was moved enough by it to start their own conservation group around it.

The biggest thing for a film is to be release on DVD. The theatrical release is really one big marketing push, and so more people will see it when it hits on DVD. I’m waiting for that.

M&C: What do you attribute all of the critical acclaim to?

Stewart: I think people like the film because it’s different and it’s really raw. It’s a crazy story…something that you don’t normally find in a documentary. It’s about corruption, murder and hospitalization. And so people can identify with it…with a 22 year old trying to make a shark movie. I think the film turns one of people’s greatest fears on its head.

M&C: Kind of off-topic, but what is your opinion on keeping large predatory sharks, like great whites, in captivity? It seems like it creates awareness but also may damage the sharks.

Stewart: We kill 100 million sharks per year and nobody notices or cares. Nobody wants to save them because they don’t like sharks. Suffering is really not my thing. The individual suffering of a single shark in captivity doesn’t seem as important as the hundreds of millions of years that have gone into creating that species and that ecosystem upon which our lives depend. I’m much more concerned about that.

If we can bring people into a new relationship and understanding of sharks by showing them animals in captivity, then that’s a good thing. 

M&C: Were there any times during the four years of production where the challenges just seemed too great to continue on and, if so, what kept you going?

Stewart: A couple of times: In the hospital, that was one of the biggest things…we hadn’t even gone under the water yet, I was $200,000 in debt and that was the worst. Everyone was saying I should return to North America and get treatment there.

But if I went back I would’ve ended up returning the cameras, which were really expensive, and then I never would’ve gotten the cameras again. So my first real shot at trying to do good would have been a failure. And so the potential that getting this information out could push humanity to do more about this situation made it worth it. 

There was also a point where I was $300,000 in debt, had West Nile virus, dengue Fever and tuberculosis all at the same time and I had no partner on the movie. No broadcaster, no nothing. No friends that knew about it or had any idea about how to put a film together.

And I was sending the film to all these places around the world trying to come on and fund part of it, or anything, and I got turned down by everybody. I actually quit working on it and started work on another film in Australia to get out of the funk, and I was doing that for about a year.

M&C: What’s next for you? Any more documentaries in the works?

Stewart: Yeah, absolutely. I want to make a movie that starts a revolution. A movie about how humans survive the next 100 years. Sort of a blueprint for what we need to do to get out of this situation and pointing to all of the critical ingredients that have sparked revolutions in the past: racial equality, etc. Exactly what we need to start another revolution.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.