Jaws Demystified

An interview by Bonnie Laufer-Krebs

This is a story about one man’s crusade to save the world’s sharks from their greatest enemy, ourselves. Sharks have long stirred hostility and anxiety in the human soul. Countless books, films and sensationalized headlines have made the mere idea of “shark” synonymous with images of vicious attacks by indiscriminate killing machines.

The truth is that sharks have much more to fear from us, says filmmaker Rob Stewart, who has spent years and hundreds of hours of videotape, trying to prove just that to a skeptical public.

Toronto-born Stewart, an experienced diver and underwater photographer, joined members of the Los Angeles-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society aboard the Ocean Warrior for a four-month expedition to deter poaching of sharks in Costa Rica and Ecuador—the perfect opportunity to start filming his documentary on declining shark populations.

However, a series of life and death situations including pirate boat rammings, attempted murder charges, arrests, espionage, corruption and hospitalization were the last things he expected on his journey that has become the beautiful and revealing film, Sharkwater.

Bonnie Laufer-Krebs had a chance to talk to the young filmmaker about his passion for saving sharks and their importance to life in the oceans and to life on the planet.

Tell us about the first time you saw a shark.

I was a kid. I was free diving with just a mask and a snorkel. I had wanted to see a shark my whole life. I had read about them in books. I’d watched them on television and I thought they were the coolest animals on earth. As I swam around the corner of a reef, I saw a shark. I was just amazed because it was so cool to see something so big and so powerful and so perfect.

Why save sharks? What makes them so important?

Species evolving in the oceans over the last 400 million years, have been shaped by their predators, the sharks, giving rise to schooling behavior, camoflage, speed, size and communication. They have survived five major extinctions and now they are being fished out. Many countries have no sharks left because they are being illegally harvested for

their fins and poachers are now fishing sharks from other countries, countries that depend on sharks for food. But no one wants to save sharks, people are afraid of them.

Do specials proclaiming it the “summer of the shark” because of attacks and the JAWS perception upset you?

It really pisses me off. You understand where they’re coming from because a dangerous shark makes money and sells papers. If they tell you a shark is beautiful and perfect and wonderful and won’t attack you that’s only going to make news once. But if they tell you “Shark attack. Shark attack.” That’s news every time. It’s ridiculous, but you know they are doing it just to play off people’s fears. The reality is totally different. Half the time it is a small shark that accidentally bites someone’s foot. You could have gotten the same injury from stepping on a piece of glass. It’s crazy how the media approaches it and

they’ve given sharks such a bad rap. It’s ludicrous because so few people get bit.

When did you begin thinking about making a documentary?

I was working as a wildlife photographer and I had done a bunch of different articles in some really big magazines on what was happening to sharks around the world after I discovered illegal shark fishing in the Galapagos. We set up a little fund where people

reading the articles could donate money towards a patrol boat in the Galapagos islands. We received virtually no money. I realized there’s got to be a better way to reach people. Print clearly wasn’t the most powerful medium I could be using. And then I figured “ok what if I make a movie about it?” I had never shot a video camera before. I just sort of

decided I was going to make a movie. I found some people that would loan me some money to rent some cameras and I got started.

Tell us about shooting the film.

The movie’s gone in every different direction imaginable. When we started, I knew nothing about movies or how to shoot them. So I started just thinking about making a beautiful underwater movie about sharks. And then when I was on this trip with the Sea Shepherd organization and world-renown conservationist Paul Watson, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. We collided with a shark-fishing boat in Guatemala that was chasing us out of Costa Rica. I never got into the water the first month there. So my underwater documentary dreams were vastly diminished. Then I sort of decided this was a really cool story, and decided to film everything that was going on.

Tell us about shark-finning.

Sharks are caught for their fins. Poachers cut off the fins and dump the bodies overboard. The fins are sold for shark fin soup and though many countries have banned shark-finning, millions of sharks are illegally harvested each year. When we arrived in

Costa Rica, the crew of the Sea Shepherd was arrested for attempted murder for the crash, despite the fact the president of the country invited us there.

Everyone else involved was wondering why the whole judicial system was attacking us. While

onshore, we had a chance to find out more about the shark-finning operations. Shark-finning is illegal in Costa Rica but shark fins were showing up all over Asia that came from Costa Rica. We figured there had to be some deeper meaning to all of this.

We met someone who believed there was a connection between the Taiwanese mafia and all the shark fins turning up in Asia. We started checking it out and this guy had a few places where he knew we would find fins. We started investigating and there were fins everywhere.

There were miles of fin operations with thousands of fins drying on rooftops, people bringing in fins. We quickly figured out there was an enormous amount of money coming into the country and there was this whole underground multi-billion dollar industry.

Were you nervous?

Absolutely. We ran at some point. The operators came at us with guns. And we had to run. I wish we could have stayed. I wish I had the balls to stay, to keep filming. We had to hop in cars and leave. Our guide later told us the shark-fin “mafia” was on the lookout for us and it would not be a good idea to walk around town.

You also caught the flesh-eating disease.

Exactly how I got that I’m not sure. I had cuts all over my feet and something must have gotten in and infected my lymphatic system. The only way I knew I had it was my lymph glands were swollen. I went to hospital a few times in the Galapagos and they just gave me anti-inflammatories. A few days later I went to a doctor who spoke a tiny bit of English who looked at my leg. He took blood tests and said you’re staying here. You may lose your leg.


Was there any point during the filming you thought about throwing in the towel?

This was close. This was the ultimate low. Everything had gone wrong. We’d been kicked out of virtually all the countries we had been to. I would have been arrested if I went back to Costa Rica, and at the end of all this, I had not shot anything underwater. I had come to shoot an underwater documentary and instead shot all this human drama.

And now I was possibly going to lose my leg.

The situation sucked and I had a girlfriend in Toronto going crazy and my parents were wondering what was going on and I couldn’t tell everybody what exactly was happening cause it would make it worse for me. The only thing I could do in the situation was laugh about it. I also made the decision that I hadn’t made the movie I wanted to make yet, or gotten back underwater with sharks.

So much was left to be done. It would have been crazy to give up at that point. So I stayed there (in hospital) for a week and eventually the infection cleared up and off I went again.

What are you ultimately hoping people will take away from your film?

There are a few things. The simplest one is that people view sharks differently. They’re not dangerous. They’re not mindless killers. They don’t eat people and I think, as long as people view them as dangerous predators, people aren’t going to care about them.

They’re not going to want them to survive on the planet. They want to get rid of something they’re afraid of. I hope that it helps to start reversing the way the media has portrayed sharks and gives people information and the tools they need to make better decisions to be able to say “okay, I’m not going to be afraid of that” or “I’m not going to

listen to this headline.” In order for humans to survive on this planet, to have such an irrational fear of sharks is not a good thing.

The other thing is that we’ve been in this few thousand-year trend of destruction. It hasn’t been cool to conserve, to promote sustainable use the environment, of the oceans. But I think people are going to start realizing that if were going to survive on this planet as a species, we need to conserve it and protect it.

Watch the Sharkwater trailer and the video about the making of this important film.

Water     Earth & Air

Solutions     Videos     InPrint     Forum  

Garden     Home     Food     Health  


Rob Stewart 1979-2017