Sharkwater Extinction overcomes tragedy to save sharks

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Sharkwater Extinction
Opens Friday 19

Hard to imagine a more difficult situation than promoting a film whose propulsive force died while making it. It’s the challenge diver Brock Cahill and activist Julie Andersen took on following the passing of Sharkwater Extinction’s director and shark advocate, Rob Stewart.

A sequel to the eye-opening 2006 documentary, Sharkwater Extinction picks up where the previous one left off. Every year, of all the sharks killed around the world, about 80 million are unaccounted for. Rob and co. set to find the culprits in a worldwide quest.

According to Cahill, Stewart’s friend for over 10 years, Rob was both an artist and tactician.

“We had all the locations mapped out, the species we could delve into and the conservation issues in each country,” he says. “That was all charted out.”

While awareness of the apex predator’ woes has grown around the world, the shark fin industry continues to thrive, quietly protected by the governments of developing nations all too willing to turn a blind eye when there’s cash on the table.

“If there’s a sliver of a silver lining [to Stewart’s death] it’s the fact that now this film is going to touch many more people, because now it’s a human story,” says Andersen, who founded the non-profit organization Shark Angels and worked as researcher on Extinction.

As if finning wasn’t bad enough, sharks also face challenges like sport fishing — obscenely popular and legal in Florida — and even food mislabeling.

It’s awfully easy to use shark carcasses as livestock feed and pet food.

How To Go On

Stewart and his team found themselves in extremely dangerous situations while making the film. There were scary moments in Costa Rica, Panama, Cabo Verde and even California. The amount of money and the sheer number of players involved in the fin trade meant that the Sharkwater team was regularly threatened, even shot at.

“There is a serious criminal element,” says Anderson. “They use the same channels as drug cartels and human traffickers, and often are the same people. We were outmanned and outgunned at every turn, chased down beaches by men carrying machetes.

“It’s crazy to find ourselves in these situations, as untrained conservationists who just care about sharks,” Andersen says.

Alas, a routine diving trip down the Florida Keys would be the one Stewart wouldn’t survive. The filmmaker was experimenting with new scuba equipment. It was supposed to allow him to stay submerged for a longer period of time. Following a medical emergency affecting another diver, Stewart vanished.

The filmmaker’s body wasn’t found until three days later.

“The Coast Guard was about to call the search off”, remembers Cahill. “I started talking to him. I promised that we would finish the film and, with that promise under his belt, we found him that second.”

The cause of Rob’s death was drowning due to hypoxia. An outstanding lawsuit against the dive operators was filed by the family. Because of the legal implications, Cahill and Andersen don’t tackle the subject head on, but Cahill says tampering with the equipment was a possible factor.

“A lot of variables go into using this kind of gear, says Cahill. “We trained on it for close to a year, so it was new to us, but at the same time we had spent a good deal of time with it to prepare for this particular dive.”

Even though it’s noticeable Sharkwater Extinction doesn’t reach a natural conclusion (the film clocks under 90 minutes), Stewart left enough material and notes for editor Nick Hector to put together a cut he would approve of.

“He put a lot of time into thinking about different scenarios”, says Andersen. “Rob mapped out so many different possibilities, when we lost him and were able to unlock his notes, it was amazing to realize he had architected the entire movie.”

By Cahill and Andersen’s own admission, there were plenty of discussions between those who wished the film to stick to the sharks (as per Rob’s wishes), and those who hoped for an homage. The outcome straddles the line between the two, although the ending is a five-handkerchief tribute.

Halfway through the film, Stewart says he knows exactly when and how he would die. He didn’t elaborate and never discussed it further with Cahill and Andersen.

“Rob had such a sense of optimism and hope, he never talked about these things with his friends. To hear that was a little surprising. It didn’t seem like him” says Andersen. “Every single time he put himself in danger’s way, he managed to get out. It reinforced him. Rob had like 18 lives, until he didn’t.”

This isn’t to say he was reckless.

“People see him on screen and think he was cavalier. He was anything but”, says Cahill. “He was extremely calculating. That said, in the water you’re at the hands of completely different forces.”

“The same way he scripted every possible scenario in the movie, he approached his life that way,” Andersen says.

The Darkest Peru

The team knows for certain this is not the end for the Sharkwater saga. Cahill is preparing for a trip to Peru, where sharks are being slaughtered with impunity (“It’s the wild west,” he says). There’s no certainty on the shape this research will take — likely it will be a film, although a series is considered — but the idea is to strike again while the iron is hot.

“Peruvian-flag vessels have to land sharks with their fins attached, but foreign vessels can bring shark fins into port with no consequence whatsoever,” says Cahill. “So everybody from Costa Rica down is going to Peru.”

For Cahill, the film itself isn’t the work.

“It’s an opportunity to shine a light on the path of what remains to be done,” he says. “We are not going to rest until sharks are safe and the oceans are a healthier place.”