Documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart was never more alive, friends and family say, than when he was in the ocean communing with beasts that strike fear in the hearts of most of us, from massive scalloped hammerhead sharks to the notoriously aggressive oceanic whitetip.
First expressed in his award-winning 2006 film "Sharkwater," the task Stewart set for himself -- to change fearful hearts and uninformed minds and greedy government policies to save the world's decimated shark populations -- seemed impossible. But the boyish 37-year-old Toronto native was buoyed by an unyielding optimism, both on screen and off, especially when it came to younger generations he hoped to inspire with his films.
This was true until the day he died off the Florida Keys while filming final scenes for "Sharkwater Extinction," a documentary that has been completed posthumously and will make its Florida premiere during the 2018 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, which runs Nov. 2-18.
Narrated by Stewart, "Sharkwater Extinction" is distinguished by an emotional coda, scenes showing the filmmaker on his final dive as he propels himself into the darkness in search of sawfish sharks near the Queen of Nassau wreck about six miles off Islamorada.
The executive producers of the documentary are his parents, Brian and Sandy Stewart, who entrusted film editor Nick Hector with Stewart's footage, copious notes, diaries, iPad sketches and emails about his vision for the film. Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson served as a creative consultant.
"He was doing what he loved," his mother, Sandy Stewart, says from her home in Toronto. "The oceans, the sharks, they lost a champion."
"Sharkwater Extinction" premiered in September in front of 1,800 people at the Toronto Film Festival, where the Toronto Globe and Mail called it "one last great act of environmental heroism."
"It was difficult. But it was heartwarming," father Brian Stewart says of the first time they watched the film in public. "He got a 10-minute standing ovation at the end, and the crowd was in tears."
The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival's relationship with Stewart dates back a dozen years, when the Florida premiere of "Sharkwater" packed the Parker Playhouse and won a Best of the Fest award. Stewart's wide-ranging 2012 film about environmental degradation and species loss, "Revolution," screened at FLIFF's Savor Cinema for two weeks.
FLIFF president Gregory von Hausch calls "Sharkwater Extinction" a "masterpiece" and "the most moving film I have seen in eons."
Brian and Sandy Stewart will attend the Nov. 17 festival screening of "Sharkwater Extinction" at Bailey Hall on the Broward College Campus in Davie, where they will present the Rob Stewart Environmental Film Award, dedicated to the FLIFF movie that best exemplifies Rob Stewart's "enduring legacy to save our planet."
It will be the Stewarts' first trip to South Florida since July, when they witnessed the christening of the vessel "M/Y Sharkwater" at the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale. The 134-foot former Japanese fishing boat was retrofitted as a $2.5 million research vessel by the marine-conservation nonprofit Fins Attached.
"As Rob Stewart always said, saving our oceans is saving us," Fins Attached founder Alex Antoniou said in a statement.
Beauty and danger
Following Stewart from Costa Rica to Panama, West Africa to Miami and his home in Los Angeles, the 96-minute "Sharkwater Extinction" is beautifully shot with high-definition 6K cameras and filled with elegant scenes of Stewart freediving into coils of massive sharks, sometimes holding one of them in a gentle caress.
But Stewart's primary focus is to call attention to the multibillion-dollar illegal shark-finning industry that he says has killed off 90 percent of the world's sharks and what the loss of the apex predators may mean for the health of the oceans and the humans that depend on them.
The search for how 100 million to 150 million sharks are removed from the ocean every year by corrupt governments and international crime organizations, and where they go, takes Stewart on some pulse-quickening adventures in "Sharkwater Extinction," including a dawn drift-net inspection in Los Angeles' Santa Monica Bay that ends in gunfire.
"My parents worry all the time," Stewart tells his crew later. "I have this belief that I'm going to be OK. I know when and how I'm gonna die."
It is a statement left unexplained in the film.
His parents admit they worried about his safety and tried to convince him to come into the family business, marketing and advertising for the film industry.
"I think that [statement] was a response to us wanting him to be behind a desk, and I think what he's saying is that he'll never be behind a desk," Brian Stewart says.
The last dive
Stewart's last dive took place on Jan. 31, 2017, a bright, sunny day with a calm, flat sea. He was wearing a rebreather, an intricately designed, computerized breathing apparatus that scrubs carbon dioxide from a user's exhaled breath and re-circulates the unused oxygen back to the diver. It allows for longer-duration dives and eliminates bubbles that can scare off fish and intrude on filming.
"It's new technology that allows you to stay down almost as long as you want," Stewart says to the camera as he prepares to strap himself into the bulky equipment.
Stewart resurfaced from his third dive of the day with Peter Sotis, owner of Fort Lauderdale-based scuba-diving equipment company Add Helium, who trained Stewart on the rebreather. Sotis collapsed on the deck of the Key Largo-based Pisces dive boat, and as the crew attended to him, Stewart disappeared.
A 6,000-square-mile search was conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies, along with private assistance of airplanes owned by billionaire Richard Branson and singer Jimmy Buffett. FLIFF program director Bonnie Leigh Adams alerted festival patrons and friends with boats and planes to take part in the search.
Stewart's body was found three days later in 225 feet of water, about 300 yards from where he was last seen.
The Stewarts have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in state court against Add Helium, its owners and Key Largo's Horizon Dive Adventures, which provided the dive boat. The Stewarts' attorney, Pedro Echarte, of the Haggard Law Firm in Coral Gables, says depositions are still being taken in the case and that a final report on the incident from the U.S. Coast Guard has yet to be released.
Stewart's parents say their son was ambitious about what he would be able to accomplish, and had his life organized into clearly delineated chapters.
"He had plans. One year, three years, five years, seven years, 10 years, 20 years and 35 years. At the end of all this was the objective of saving mankind," Brian Stewart says. "He believed that once he could educate people and show them the beauty of the natural world, we could learn to live in balance with it. That would be the solution to the crisis we are facing. He believed you had to fight for the world you want."
'A powerful dude'
Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Andy Casagrande, a Naples resident who has shot and produced ocean science-based films for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet's Shark Week, was a friend of Stewart and helped out on "Sharkwater Extinction." He took part in a provocative sequence that Stewart and his team shot with notorious Miami shark hunter Mark "the Shark" Quartiano, who boasted that he has killed 50,000 sharks over the years.
"When he first told me he wanted me to go out with him and Mark the Shark, I said, 'What are we going to do, fing throw him overboard or put him on a hook? '" Casagrande recalls. "And he's, like, 'No, I want to try to understand why psychos like this exist.' "
The trip almost didn't happen, as Casagrande's anger began to boil over while they were preparing to board Quartiano's boat.
"Rob pulled me aside and said, 'Hey, man, let's just let it play out. Try to calm down. We're here to expose this guy, to show his true side. Let him be the alpha and do his thing,' " Casagrande says. "Rob had this amazing ability to tell the story, unbiased, get what he needed out of these people, to show the world. At the same time, internally, I'm sure he couldn't stand the guy."
During the trip, Stewart and his crew get in the water as a member of Quartiano's crew catches and releases a hammerhead that everyone seems convinced will not survive the ordeal. A member of Stewart's team, Madison Stewart (no relation), is left in tears.
Casagrande was supposed to be with Stewart on the fateful dive in the Florida Keys, but canceled to fulfill a prior commitment in Australia.
"He had asked me to do that dive with him, but to be honest, I was booked on something else, and I'm just not into deep-water, rebreather dives," Casagrande says. "I have a rebreather, and I haven't dived it in seven-plus years, because I'm not a big fan of having a computer keep me alive."
Casagrande was working on a Shark Week project off Western Australia on a boat with a broken satellite phone when the search for Stewart was under way. He did not get the news that his friend was missing in a traditional sense.
He had been diving with great white sharks for about two weeks, frequently leaving his protective dive cage without incident. But one day, the sharks' mood changed.
"We had this amazing experience, everything was cool, but on that day, it was like someone flipped a switch. All of the sharks were super agitated," Casagrande says. "Something was weird. Something was wrong. I didn't feel safe."
Casagrande later found out it was the day Stewart had died.
"He was in the same liquid space as us, even though we were 10,000 miles away, whatever it is. But Rob has such a super powerful aura about him. I know it sounds weird and hokey and spiritual, but he is a powerful dude," Casagrande says.
"Sharkwater Extinction" screens 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival at Bailey Hall, 3501 Davie Road, in Davie. Tickets cost $12, seniors $10. Visit FLIFF.com. For more on Rob Stewart and his work, go to Sharkwater.com.
This article is written by Ben Crandell from Sun Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.