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.
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.