Rob Stewart

Sharkwater producer: Untimely death, lasting legacy

When 37-year-old shark conservationist Rob Stewart died under mysterious circumstances earlier this year, his passing would touch not just those at Zarraffa’s Coffee who knew him, but people across the world.

Late afternoon on 31 January this year, acclaimed filmmaker and shark conservationist Rob Stewart and his dive buddy/instructor, Peter Sotis, surfaced near their support boat off the coast of Florida, USA.They had just completed their third 70-metre dive of the day, Rob’s deepest dives ever.

It was also his first deep dives using a rebreather system, rather than normal scuba gear. Rob like other underwater cinematographers was attracted to rebreathers becausethey don’t express air bubbles,which often frightens sea life.

Conditions were almost calm when the divers appeared. Rob signaled that he was ok, but Peter seemed distressed as he climbed aboard. Moments later hepassed out.As the boat crew fought to revive Peter, Rob disappeared.

Within minutes, the search for Rob was underway and word that he was missing spread across the globe. Sea Shepherd volunteered a ship for the search, Richard Branson and Jimmy Buffet their private aircraft.

Zarraffa’s Coffee founder Kenton Campbell, his wife Rachel and associateCameron Lane were on a business trip in the United States when they heard the news about Rob. Experienced divers, Kenton and Cam looked at each other. “We hoped he was ok, but we feared the worst,” Kenton recalls.

Although Rob had logged many hundreds of dives using normal scuba gear, he was new to rebreathers, the closed circuit system that recycles carbon dioxide a diver exhales into breathable air. (This is particularly attractive to underwater cinematographers like Rob as rebreathers don’t express loud air bubbles like scuba rigs.).

Most experienced technical divers agree that going from scuba to rebreathers, especially those using mixed-gas needed for the extreme depths Rob an Peter were attempting,, is like starting from scratch. Add to this the extreme depths they were reachinv, not just twice but three times in one day and the risks were extreme.

Over the next 72 hours, the U.S. Navy, Customs and Border Protection, Florida wildlife officials, a county sheriff’s office and civilian volunteers joined the Coast Guard in a search area that covered more than15,000 square kilometres.Just as the search was called off, a local dive team found Rob’s body on the ocean floor, just 90 metres from where he was last seen.

“It’s a tragedy and an incredible loss to his family and friends,” Kenton says. “He was such an awesome man.”

Rob was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario and showed interest in the marine world from an early age. He gained his Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certification when just 13. He studied biology at Ontario’s Western University before pursuing his passion for photography, cinematography and the oceans.

In 2002, Rob began filming Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson in his fight against Costa Rican shark poachers. At one point, Watson slammed his ship, Ocean Warrior, into the poachers’ vessel, which brought charges of attempted murder for Watson, his crew and Rob. They allmanaged to slip away and were able to use Rob’s footage to expose a major illegal shark-finning cartel.

Around this time Rob met Stradbroke Island cinematographer, David Hannan, and together they co-produced the internationally-acclaimed documentarySharkwater. It was through David that Kenton was introduced to Rob.

“I met Rob up in Milne Bay, PNG, on a dive trip five years ago,” Kenton says. “Rob and Davidwere working on their new film Revolution, alongside leading conservationists in the area of ocean acidification, Charlie Veron, and (actor/cinematographer) Tristan Bayer. We dived eight destinations over a week and a half and had the most amazing free dives with giant manta rays.

“Rob had a really bright spark in his eye. I could see that he cared about what he was doing. He was stuck on diving and the environment, something I shared with him from day one.

“I loved his optimism. His belief that there was always something good that could come out of any situation. It was always about how we can work with what we’ve got.”

Kenton recalls a subsequent dinner at Byron Bay with his dive buddies, as well as Tristan’s father, wildlife filmmaker Wolfgang Bayer. “Tristan’s dad was telling us, ‘not one person, not you, not me, not one of us can save anything alone. We can inspire, we can be a part of it, but you need a community.”

Kenton continues, “I think Rob’s legacy is to show that communities must believe in themselves, be willing to change and not accept ‘anything at any cost’. Rob’s legacy is going to make a difference because of the difference he made when he was alive.”

In 2013 Revolution was released. Following on from Sharkwater, it shows that not just sharks are in jeopardy, but humans as well. Rob looks to evolution of life and past revolutions, activists and youth to find out how we might save our future.

Revolution co-producer David Hannan says, “The role of young people has never been so crucial. They are the only ones who will turn the environment around.”

Rob inspired many, including Australia’s own ‘Shark Girl’, Madison Stewart. Shortly after Rob died, the Byron Bay conservationist posted on her FB page: “Its hard for me to think Rob is gone… when his spirit and ideas and passion are with us every day… it feels like you are still here… a few days ago a giant tiger shark crept up out of the blue and hung out with us, and its been forever since I’ve had that happen… you started a movement that we will all continue now and into the future.”