Armed with a camera, a unique talent for visual storytelling, and an affable smile, Rob Stewart set out to change the world at 22 years old. Altering people’s perceptions of sharks, turning beast to beauty, seemed a near-impossible task. But through one hard-hitting documentary and shear determination, he succeeded.
Last week, UW360 got the call that Rob Stewart had gone missing. A few startled updates via social media and a news story from a Canadian newspaper seemed all that there was out there on it. When word reached the wider dive industry, though, suddenly a flurry of support erupted. Private boats, tek divers and surface spotters assisted the 13 helicopters, several planes and coast guards that tirelessly carried out the search. A fundraising page was set up to cover the expenses of the rescue effort, reaching almost USD200,000 in just four days. With an overwhelming amount of support, both on the ground and below the waves, the search continued. Then, on Friday night, tragically, a spokesperson for Stewart’s family confirmed Rob’s body had been found.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Rob Stewart had an innate love for the ocean. Diving and photographing from the age of 13, by 18 Stewart was already a scuba instructor-trainer. Through a curiosity to explore the underwater world and its inhabitants, Stewart moved on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in biology.
With a thirst to see the world he had studied, Stewart embarked on a four-year tour of the planet. As a chief photographer for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s magazines, he led expeditions to some of the most remote areas of the world.
When Sharkwater was released in 2006, Rob Stewart was boosted to fame. A hugely successful documentary exploring the densest shark hunting populations in the world, the film captured current attitudes about sharks, and how shark-hunting industries are driving them to extinction. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and winning “Canada’s Top Ten” award, Sharkwater made history with the largest opening weekend of any Canadian documentary, and was the most awarded documentary of the year, winning over 40 accolades in film festivals around the world. Sharkwater has subsequently been credited with being the genesis for the shark conservation movement, changing government policy worldwide, and inspiring the creation of shark conservation groups.
It was Stewart’s stunning portrayal of sharks in their habitat that won the attention of the public, and attracted conservationists and activists to sing the young filmmaker’s praises. “His images contrasted the beauty of sharks within their element against the ugly images of the horror of their living finless bodies tossed overboard,” wrote Captain Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, in a testament.
“The man knew sharks. He understood their importance and his confidence with his views about sharks allowed him to approach and film some of the most amazing images ever captured about these spectacular apex predators.”
Stewart’s second film, Revolution, would go on to be the highest grossing Canadian documentary in 2013 and win 19 awards at international film festivals.
“Stewart had the four most important virtues needed to be a world-class expert on sharks and the reality of our relationship with the living diversity within oceanic eco-system,” wrote Watson. “These virtues are passion, empathy, courage and imagination.”
His “imagination” led him to write two award-winning books, Sharkwater: An Odyssey to Save the Planet, and Save the Humans. His determination saw him get on the boards of numerous conservation groups, becoming a strong voice for WildAid, Shark Savers, Fin Free and the NASA developed MEGA Global Initiative, as well as others.
The conservation world is now mourning the loss of a true ocean defender.
“He was a warrior for our planet and will be missed more than words can say,” actress and whale campaigner Hayden Panettiere said in a tweet. Fellow filmmaker Les Stroud tweeted: “RIP #RobStewart in the arms of the ocean you love and that loves you. A champion for sharks. My friend.” Project AWARE thanked Stewart for “inspiring divers and non-divers alike to be agents of positive change for the ocean.”
Living a wholly altruistic lifestyle which inspired many to act on the ill-treatment and misunderstanding of marine life, Rob Stewart will be deeply missed. He shattered the “shark stereotype”, made the world stop and notice, and did it all with that smile. How many lives he may have saved through his actions, we’ll never know. For now, he stands as a hero to fight for, a hero that, as Captain Paul Watson summed up simply, “Died doing what he loved.”