Immersed in a Different World

“The animal we fear the most is the one we can’t live without”—so the movie begins. Right away we enter into Rob Stewart’s world of sharks, and his obvious love affair with the species. It is actually hard to be critical of the film in the sense that you feel you are treading on Stewart’s very sacred ground. This project has clearly been a focused passion since he was eight years old, and his telling of this story is infused with his intensity and his obvious love for the animal.

This 90-minute film is filled with incredible footage, especially of his loving embraces with hundreds of sharks, as he strokes their mouths and sides with the touch of a mother with child. There are times when you would swear that the footage was digitally enhanced with CG sharks since there are so many of them, debunking the myth that sharks travel alone.

Rob Stewart, director of Sharkwater

The story that Rob Stewart wants us to know is that the shark stands as the number one most endangered species on the planet, and that we are at peril as the result. What’s hard to figure out is which truth is more alarming to him.

This shark shortage is due to a hideous business of “Shark Finning,” which is the practice of catching sharks to cut off their fins and then throw them whole back into the sea to die a slow death. Stewart informs us that the practice is the result of a billion-dollar business originating in Asia that uses the fins to make “Shark Fin Soup,” which brings hundreds of dollars a plate. He says that shark fins produce about $300 a pound in income and that, even though it is illegal in almost all sovereign waters, many governments (primarily in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, where there is an abundance of shark reefs) are easily paid off by the companies that are doing the procedure illegally.

Sharkwater has amazing footage of Greenpeace boats ramming fishing vessels, high speed sea chases, and illegal finning. At one point, the entire film crew is unjustly placed under house arrest in Costa Rica for attempted murder, from which they barely escape with their lives; then they go back in under cover, to film and expose a mass finning industry—all this in an effort to create enough local and global interest to put pressure on the government to enforce the laws that already exist on the books.

Stewart makes a compelling argument for his passion. First, he makes the case that media frenzy and movies like Jaws have done more to create fear of sharks than sharks have. He says there are only 60-100 attacks a year (mostly a case of mistaken identity), and that “soda pop machines kill more people than sharks do a year” (they say that a lot). Secondly, his strongest case is a biological one (Stewart is an under water photographer, and a marine biologist), which states that sharks are needed in order to keep an eco-balance or harmony in our eco-system. Sharks, he tells us, are top feeders, meaning that they feed on the fish that feed on the plankton, which is needed to help turn the world’s carbon-dioxide into oxygen, which will help stay global warming. Without these “beautiful” animals, unchecked plankton-eating fish populations will destroy the eco-system, and subsequently human life.

There is no doubt that I think that we as humans have a responsibility to be caretakers of this planet, and that we would all be the lesser to watch an entire species to be wiped off the planet by human means (100 million sharks are killed every year). The practice is a waste, and a hideous result of a very greedy humanity.

With all that said, several points in this movie interested me. First, we are repeatedly told that we are nothing but “naked apes” and that sharks have evolved for hundreds of millions of years more than humans. Greenpeace ship captain Paul Watson says, “We see ourselves as some sort of gods… but in reality we are just a bunch of primates out of control.” Stewart adds that “sharks have been gods for over 400 million years [hundreds of millions of years of evolution more than humans and primates] shaping life in the sea and land.” Once again, it seems to me that if the shark is that much further down the evolutionary road than humans, how is it that we are rescuing them?

Second, Stewart goes on to say that the “objective is to save the planet from ourselves.” If we are the problem, then how are we the solution? Isn’t this a bit of moralist grandstanding? What—the world is ignorant, but “we (a few enlightened individuals) will save the day?”

Also, how do we know for sure that the extinction of these animals will contribute greatly to global warming? Stewart says that “nature created them for a reason.” Well, maybe “nature” is killing them off for a reason, too, as nature has done to many species before for the “good” of the planet. How do we know? Are we assuming purpose, and therefore a reason to care? The problem with his premise—that nature is in charge, not us—is that it kills off any reason to care.

I definitely applaud Mr. Stewart’s passion, and his actions are motivated by an obvious love for sharks; but there are so many causes in this world to fight for: genocide in many of the world’s countries like the Sudan, saving nations like Tibet from totalitarian rule, and, depending on your perspective, saving millions of babies from yearly extinction. Why sharks? I’m not sure he made me think hard enough about this.

What we can learn from this movie is that passion—whether wielded by Rob Stewart’s camera, a pro life protest, or the gun barrel of a terrorist weapon—comes from a matter of perspective; and while none of the above mentioned passions would most likely come together in agreement, we can rest assured that ignorance and myopia is at the center of most of them. But for those that are passionate, their own cause seems to instill a sense of purpose often lost in an ocean of confusion.

Sharkwater is rated PG for “images of animal cruelty, thematic elements, language and some smoking.” This is a well-done and thoughtful film, and other than the violence done to these great creatures, it’s a movie that everyone in the family can enjoy and have a lot to talk about.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of Sharkwater.