When Rob Stewart perished in a diving accident in January of 2017, he left behind a huge legacy as an artist and activist. He had become the dream figure for the international conservationist movement. Handsome, charismatic and well-spoken, Stewart made films, wrote books and took photos documenting the terrible price that wildlife species are paying due to humanity’s exploitation of them and their environment. Above all, he was concerned about sharks, the beautiful, fierce creatures that he loved and to whom he dedicated his energy and artistry.
As the senior programmer for Canada’s main ecological film festival, Planet in Focus, I once had the pleasure to interview Rob on stage at a packed house in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall. He was so articulate and prepared for our talk that I told him he could have a career as a politician. He replied that he was happier as a filmmaker, making his impact with documentaries, but even his denial was elegantly phrased.
His debut feature Sharkwater (2006), released when he was 27 years old, was a worldwide hit, garnering over 35 awards. But it wasn’t only prizes that Stewart was after. Like any true documentarian, he wanted to change the world. Sharkwater wasn’t just a gorgeously shot doc about sharks. It was about their plight in a world that hated them, thanks to the fears created by Jaws, and hunted them down for their fins, which are believed to do everything from raising sexual potency to curing cancer.
With the success of Sharkwater, Rob Stewart was able to mount a campaign to make the hunting of sharks illegal. Though dozens of countries have outlawed shark finning, which effectively kills the maimed creatures, the illegal lure of millions of dollars has allowed the mass murder of sharks to continue. Sharkwater Extinction, his final film, will hopefully make an impact in halting the heinous series of crimes plaguing his beloved sharks.
The world is a smaller place without Rob’s fearlessness, fine filmmaking and belief in the ability of humanity to change for the better.
Adieu, Rob Stewart.