Everything you think you know about sharks is wrong. Contrary to popular fear, these ancient predators of the oceans are not blood thirsty killers lurking in the depth waiting to eat you. More people are killed by falling pop machines than by sharks. And, with good reason, sharks are more afraid of humans than we are of them.
Rob Stewart, a shark lover and underwater photographer, set out to document the beauty of sharks in the wild. He never thought he would end up ramming an illegal fishing boat, being arrested in Costa Rica, exposing a multi-million dollar illegal shark-fining operation and fleeing for his life into international waters. What he ended up with was a documentary about the almost completely undocumented slaughter of these graceful and sensitive creatures. Fueled by greed and ignorance, the world’s consumption of fish of all kinds has brought more and more species to the edge of extinction.
The shark fin business is so lucrative that in the amount of time it takes you to watch Sharkwater, an estimated 1,500 sharks are killed. And this goes on every day. The practice of shark-finning–where sharks are captured illegally, de-finned and then thrown back into the ocean to sink to the bottom and die–is so totally devastating that it is a cry for us to reexamine our relationship with the earth we live on. When I met Rob at the Vancouver Aquarium, he was with his partner in the film Paul Watson, the controversial and defiant sea captain who helped found Greenpeace and now runs the Sea Shepherds. For the record, Paul is a legendary figure in the environmental movement and is responsible for sinking nine whaling ships in his attempt to stop whaling around the world.
ONLY: How did the film change from a documentary about the beauty of sharks to a film about environmental activism?
Rob Stewart: When I started making the movie I was just an underwater photographer, I was not a filmmaker, and I was just banking on my ability to take pretty pictures underwater. I was hoping to make an underwater movie like Winged Migration where I cold bring the audience closer to sharks than ever before so they could better understand them. Then three weeks into the shoot, having rented these enormously expensive high-def cameras, I still had no footage of sharks. Then we ended up turning the cameras on ourselves in order to keep a record of anything that happened to us in case we ended up stuck in a prison in Costa Rica for the rest of our lives.
We thought the whole time that what we were shooting was going to become the “Making of Sharkwater.” Only when I came back and started pitching my ideas did it start to make sense. This was the movie. I would tell people about what happened to me: how I joined with the Sea Shepherd, we collided with a fishing boat, we went to Costa Rica where they charged us with attempted murder, we exposed this corruption involving the Taiwanese mafia that was allowing all this illegal fishing and how they tried to detain and have us arrested. Everyone I told was captivated by the story. Then I went to story seminars and tried to figure out how to put the story together and ended up going to a seminar by Robert McKee–
ONLY: The guy from Adaptation?
RS: Yeah that’s him. After that I realized that everything that happened to me during the making of the movie was textbook story structure.
ONLY: Was there ever a point where you saw the story you were telling change from the struggle to capture footage of sharks to the story of your own adventure?
RS: It was all very organic and very guerilla-style from the get go. We were just trying to put the best thing together with what we had. But it ended up becoming a much more powerful story that way because instead of it just being about sharks, it became a story about humanity and what we are doing to the oceans. It shows that it’s not just about saving sharks but that it’s also about saving people.
ONLY: That comes across very clearly. Especially the correlation between the way sharks, as predators, have shaped the evolution of all underwater species and to an extent their entire environment. Then you really begin to understand the intricacies of the eco-system: how life on both land and in the ocean is wound together.
RS: That was really important for us and I didn’t know if people would care. Sure I could tell the world that sharks are being wiped out and they could easily just say “whatever.” So we had to find a way to relate it back to human beings and to show them that we are all a part of this system.
ONLY: How did your relationship with Paul start?
RS: There weren’t that many people working to save sharks. He was pretty much the only one working in the Cocos and the Galapagos and those were the areas I was most concerned about. They are the two areas with the greatest concentration of sharks in the world and if we couldn’t protect these marine reserves what chance did we have in the rest of the world?
ONLY: When you exposed the illegal shark fining operation in Costa Rica how real was the threat from Taiwanese mafia?
RS: Pretty real. Even at that point we still weren’t filming the movie. We were filming that so we had evidence to give to the government so that we could get out of jail. So when we got that footage and the second they started running at us we took off. That was one of the more scary moments, that and when we were running from Costa Rica.
ONLY: Have you guys since then been cleared of that?
RS: No. We just haven’t been back to Costa Rica.
ONLY: You were invited by the Costa Rican President, and then you were charged with attempted murder. How does that happen?
RS: He just washed his hands of the whole thing. As soon as we got charged we called him and asked why he wasn’t helping us. I mean we have footage to prove it, we have 43 people that state that no one tried to kill anybody and they have seven people on a fishing boat that have a vested interest in Sea Shepherd not protecting this island saying we tried to kill them, it just made no sense at all. So we just figured there must be a connection between the illegal trade and the government.
ONLY: So Paul, the Costa Rican government tried to prosecute you.
Paul Watson: They tried. Later though they said they would drop all the charges if I paid them a hundred thousand dollars. And I said that wasn’t going to happen, and then they said they would put out an international warrant for my arrest through Interpol. I said “do it”, and I think they have but nobody’s done anything about it.
ONLY: You’ve had many charges brought on you over the years.
PW: I was in court here in Canada this morning because they were trying to charge me under the Canadian Fishing Act. But that’s not going to go anywhere. We win all the time.
ONLY: Rob, you mention at the end of the film that 16 countries have come on side to ban shark fining…
RS: Seventeen now. Mexico two weeks ago banned shark fining.
ONLY: Do you think that the film has really helped, or is it that you both have been so actively out there on the water?
PW: I think that awareness is certainly growing. People are getting more involved, and I think that the message is starting to get through to those different countries.
RS: I mean, the film hasn’t even been released yet–only a few thousand people have seen it–and we’ve had such an amazing response already. The movement started without the film so it’s like the film is just going to be the final swoop.
ONLY: Over the past few years there’s been a whole slew of films about environmental sustainability but this film is one of the first to shed light on something that is generally outside the public consciousness. Do you think that this is just the right time for that to happen?
RS: I think that it’s the evolution of humans. We’re using the earth in incredibly unsustainable ways. We need six planet earths to sustain life based on our resource uses here in North America. We’ve wiped out 90 per cent of the large predators in the oceans. We waste 54 billion pounds of fish each year. Eight million people die from starvation every year. I mean these aren’t stats that work with a sense of balance. Humans, to survive on earth, have to develop a different relationship–a sustainable relationship–with the natural world. It’s inevitable.
We’re at a time right now–just as we were with the evolution of humans towards the equality of race and gender–where the stories people are telling are stories that have more relevance. Movies like The Inconvenient Truth, Happy Feet, even Finding Nemo, they all have environmental messages. And I think it’s important. We’re right at the turning point where our actions everyday, no matter how far we are from the oceans, are going to impact whether future generations are going to survive or not.