A documentary by Rob Stewart. Rated PG
If Sharkwater Extinction proves anything, it’s that late filmmaker and eco warrior Rob Stewart was willing to go to any lengths for his cause.
In the course of the affable director’s posthumous documentary on the underground fishing industry that’s killing tens of millions of sharks each year, he gets shots fired at him off the coast of California; totes a hidden camera into a freezer boat loaded with blue shark carcasses in Cape Verde; and secretly flies a drone over Taiwanese-mob-owned finning warehouses in Costa Rica.
He admits to us in voice-over that his parents worry about him, but he always believes that “things are going to be okay.”
What makes this fast-moving, globe-hopping exposé so poignant, of course, is that Stewart also died for his cause. In a last dive depicted near the end of the movie, it’s chilling to watch the activist cheerily demonstrating how a diving rebreather works, then putting on the high-tech contraption that recirculates oxygen—the same one that will contribute to his death by hypoxia and drowning off the Florida Keys on January 31, 2017.
The film, completed with the help of doc veteran Sturla Gunnarsson, is an apt tribute to Stewart’s life. It profiles him in ways his previous films didn’t; he talks about being a chubby kid who stuttered, connecting to animals more than humans.
It also works as a strong and convincing—albeit scattershot—argument that sharks are in even greater danger now than they were when he made 2006’s Sharkwater. That film had a big hand in bringing about bans on the harvesting of fins for Asian delicacies. Now, as he shows in undercover trips to shops and fish counters, shark DNA is hidden in everything from unlabelled cosmetics to fish products. And finning has moved even further underground.
We see harrowing scenes here—a giant thresher shark caught by the gills in a drift net, a hammerhead being reeled in on a giant hook by a commercial fishing boat operator, the dried fins of baby hammerheads in the back of a transport truck.
But the most lasting imagery from Sharkwater Extinction are the more beautiful moments, shot in gorgeous high definition by 8K cameras. Free-diving with curious oceanic whitetips and prehistoric-looking hammerhead in a shallow bay, Stewart comes across as some kind of shark whisperer—and takes us places most of us would never otherwise see.
Along the way, Stewart gets his ideas across with a laid-back-dude appeal that will reach kids of all ages, avoiding scientific lecturing and instilling hope even as he’s sounding an alarm.
The planet will miss him.