Rob Stewart was 9 the first time he came face-to-face with a shark. While he was snorkeling along a reef in the Caribbean, the shark swam into view and quickly reversed direction. The encounter lasted mere seconds, but it changed Stewart’s perception of the oft-misunderstood predator.

“For me, that whole experience, a 5-foot Caribbean reef shark terrified of a 9-year-old kid, removed all the fear I had of sharks,” Stewart, a biologist and conservationist, said in his documentary Sharkwater Extinction. The film is a follow-up to his groundbreaking movie Sharkwater (2006), which revealed the cruel industry of shark finning, where people cut off sharks’ fins for use in soup and toss the animals back in the water to die. 

Stewart will never see this sequel, but his parents hope millions of others will. Stewart died in a diving accident during filming, and his family, cast members and others completed the documentary using his meticulous notes and directions.

Brian and Sandy Stewart say their son had a dozen documentary ideas detailed on paper, but he chose to revisit sharks because their situation is so dire. Tens of millions of sharks are killed every year for their fins, and several species are threatened with extinction because of human interference.

In this edited interview with editorial director Emily Smith, Stewart’s parents talk about his legacy and the fight to protect one of the world’s most misunderstood creatures. 

Rob Stewart, filmmaker, in his wetsuit between filming of Sharkwater Extinction
Conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart worked to educate people about the threats sharks face and inspire them to take action. He died while filming Sharkwater Extinction, but his family has continued to spread his message about the need to protect sharks and their environment.
Courtesy of Sharkwater Pictures

In the film, Rob describes that first encounter with a shark. Do you think that moment sparked his interest in sharks or did it develop over time?

SANDY: He had been interested in the ocean and its animals since a very young age. We traveled as often as we could and taught Rob and his sister that everywhere you go there are different species to love. We’d be in a new place for five minutes and he’d find some new creature. That day, he was snorkeling on a reef and saw this shark, and when he came out of the water, you could see it in his face that, wow, something incredible had just happened.

BRIAN: After that, he started reading biology books the university students would be studying front to back and constantly trying to find more information about underwater creatures. We knew enough about sharks in general, but we had not encountered them in the same way he just did. We encouraged his passion and then it was a total turnaround—he became the teacher.

What do you think he found so inspiring about the ocean and sharks? 

SANDY: I think it’s that the creatures are just so different. He loved swimming with them. He described it as flying through the water. I think also that they are so misunderstood. His favorite shark was the scallop hammerhead, which is really unique and has so many sensors—they feel you when you’re in the water with them. In the movie, he interacts with hammerheads and all sorts of other sharks, and it’s almost like watching a ballet. It was so natural to him. 

Sharkwater opened people’s eyes to shark finning, and today more than 90 countries have banned the practice or restricted the trade of shark products. What was Rob’s goal for Sharkwater Extinction

Illustration of a can of food containing sharkmeat
Stewart found shark meat labeled as dozens of misleading things at grocery stores and in wet cat food, labeled as “ocean whitefish.”

SANDY: The movie had a tremendous impact, but as long as countries allow the importation of shark fins, the killing will continue. And Rob wanted people to know it goes beyond finning: Now you’re finding sharks in other products, and consumers don’t realize it. Rob found shark as a byproduct in 50 percent of the wet cat food he tested, but it’s correctly labeled as “ocean whitefish,” according to the Food and Drug Administration. He found shark meat labeled as dozens of misleading things at grocery stores. Shark liver oil is often used in cosmetics, and sharks are also in ground fish pellets used in some organic fertilizers. It’s horrifying that these animals are endangered and they’re being used in consumer products.

How do you hope people respond to the film?

SANDY: Some people might think that they don’t live near the ocean, so there’s nothing they can do to help. But everything we do, the plastic we use that goes into the waters and the choices that we make when we’re buying products, all determine whether the good industries survive and the bad ones go away. 

Do you believe peoples’ attitudes toward sharks are shifting?

SANDY: Perhaps Rob’s biggest legacy is teaching people that sharks aren’t dangerous. Millions of people have seen Rob swimming with sharks, and it’s now pretty common to see regular divers in the water with sharks. People are now realizing they’re not the Jaws monsters they once believed.  

What does it mean to you to see his work out there for audiences to see?

BRIAN: It’s really gratifying. I wish he was here to talk to you about it instead of us, to be honest with you. On one of his Christmas lists as a kid, he wrote that the only thing he wanted was a dragon, but since those aren’t available, swimming with sharks for the rest of his life was a close second.


LEARN MORE:

See the trailer for Sharkwater Extinction and find screenings near you, or find more information about protecting sharks.

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