The Bravest Naturalist You’ll Never Meet

Bravery does not mean being unafraid. It means being afraid, and doing the right thing anyway.

There are lots of brave nature lovers, of course — those who chain themselves
to bulldozers to stop old-growth logging or harmful construction projects.

But above them all, I’d like to introduce the bravest naturalist you and I will never meet.

Rob Stewart loved sharks. He swam with them. He petted them. Many people would say that that takes bravery, but I’m pretty sure Rob would have said “No, it’s just what I do.” He was not afraid of sharks. He understood them. He understood that they are the apex predators of the sea, and without them, the entire food chain may be disrupted or collapse, just like Canada’s code stocks did off the Grand Banks. If you think there’s a migrant crisis now (there is in Europe; it’s not here yet), just wait until there is suddenly no fish available to feed most of the world.

Free diving among the sharks

His first movie, SharkWater, showed the world the evil of “shark finning”, where a shark’s fins are cut off to feed people with paleolithic superstitions in Asia, who think that “Shark fin soup” brings good luck. Not good luck to the shark, who is thrown back in the water to die, in great pain, a slow death by suffocation. Some 90 countries banned shark finning, but most did not ban the importation of shark fins, and even then, no ban exists in international waters, so this barbaric practice continues.

And since the fin that’s worth $5 to the third-world fisherman is worth $200 where it is made into soup, there is big business here, yet one that must be undertaken under cover of darkness. As with street drugs, there is organized crime, and mob violence, and “disappearances” of those who ask too many questions.

This dirty business of “finning”, and over-fishing of sharks in general, is the subject of his third and last documentary, Sharkwater Extinction which is playing right now in select theatres around the world.

He spoke openly to power, questioning presidents and politicians, filming them to show their two-faced lies.

Rob went undercover to track this activity. Posing as a naive tourist, he went out on a boat with “Mark the Shark”, who doesn’t do finning, but does “sporting” catch-and-release for trophy photos — selfies for people with, perhaps, more money than compassion for nature — knowing full well that most of the hammerhead sharks die after being released. “There are plenty of sharks”, Mark says. He’s wrong.

Rob further went undercover as a tourist to look at boats full of illegally-harvested sharks. The sheer number of shark kills is beyond comprehension — at the end of the hour-and-a-half movie, a slide notes that “While you were watching this movie, 25,000 sharks were killed.” Do the math. That is overfishing on a world-threatening scale, by and for people who just don’t give a damn.

He went diving at night to look at driftnets, vast nets that sweep up and kill sharks, giant sea turtles, and many other animals, most of which are simply discarded because the fishing boat is only looking for one particular seafood for your table. This drift net was just a few miles off Rob’s home town of Los Angeles, but the fishermen were actually shooting live ammo at him and his crew when they surface; they survived by luck (though luck favors the prepared, and they had thought to bring a fast getaway boat).

But risk-takers’ luck often runs out in the end. Rob was doing a series of deep dives — 100M/300ft — to see a particular kind of shark that lives there. I used to teach the PADI SCUBA diving program, and that is about three times the maximum safe depth for normal sport SCUBA. They were trained on and using “rebreathing” equipment. He and his dive buddy surfaced, and both got in trouble while returning to the boat. His dive partner survived, and Rob did not. There was a documentary on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s news channel last week investigating the, shall we say, suspicious circumstances around his death. It is up on cbc.ca’s documentary site.

Having lost a child of my own, I can attest that Rob’s parents — Sandra Campbell and Brian Stewart — must have been the source of his bravery, because they had the courage to pick up the pieces of his film and, with the rest of the team, finish the editing and production, even down to the very last moments before the final dive, where he says something like “Don’t worry about me, folks. I’ll be home soon.” Brave last words.

I’d like to encourage you to see the film if you can. Hopefully by next year it will be on DVD or download so you can watch it on demand.

I’d also encourage you to be careful what you eat and what you smear on your face. Since sharks are the apex predator, all the toxins that people dump into the oceans get concentrated in their bodies, which are basically toxic, so you shouldn’t be eating them or applying them. Yet a lot of foods, pet foods, and cosmetics have shark products hidden in them, either under the name “Squalene” or sometimes under the vague heading “meat byproducts”. For more information on how you can help protect this vital part of the ocean’s natural food chain, see the web site sharkwater.com.