Gratitude for Rob

Sharkwater director Rob Stewart’s passing hasn’t stopped his message from spreading
Photo: Team Sharkwater

Off the coast of the Florida Keys in January last year, director Rob Stewart took his final dive while filming his new movie Sharkwater: Extinction. The mystery concerning his death has been a shadow cast over the legacy of the 37-year-old conservationist behind the camera. It has become common belief that the circumstances of that final dive were not presented in entire truths. Since then, the case has become the spotlight of many investigative pieces, conversations in ecological protection communities, and of course for his family and hometown of Toronto, Ontario.

Saddled with what came to be evidentiary footage for the new film, Stewart’s parents, Sandy and Brian Stewart, assumed the duty of completing Sharkwater: Extinction with the help of director Sturla Gunnarsson and editor Nick Hector. The film premiered this year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has held a 9/10 on IMDb and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes since.

Stewart’s untimely passing hasn’t hindered his primary focus in life. His parents have stewarded his conservation group, Team Sharkwater, since his passing. His legacy endures through the lessons he taught us, and the communities that formed from his teachings. And though the conservation community has lost one of its greats, Stewart’s message continues to permeate the sea-faring world.

As anyone who knew him well will tell you, he was a risk taker. And it paid off. Despite susceptibility to disease, being harassed by fishermen, getting shot by illegal operators of finning expeditions, and all of the vulnerabilities associated with diving, he persevered. In his short career beginning at the age of 22, he managed to produce a total of four documentary films about marine life conservationism.

Stewart’s films have had a lasting effect on the way we view marine genocide. His work largely centred on the illegal practice of finning (the act of amputating a shark’s fin and then returning it to the water to die) for shark fin soup. Inspired by the documentaries, Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw’s has committed to selling only sustainable seafood.

Since his 2007 film Sharkwater, Canadian cities like Toronto have voted in an attempt to ban outright the possession, sale and consumption of shark fin soup. Many other counties have followed suit. It was Stewart’s belief that vassalage be paid by legislature, “politicians are our servants. They should have cameras in their bathrooms and all their phone conversations recorded.”

Obviously, Rob didn’t run with the pack. Tyler McLeod, a friend from Western University, remembers Rob as one who went his own way: when everyone else was concerned with college life consisting of parties and sports, Rob was already trying to save the world.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 2003 and a having a keen interest inphotography, he began working as a photographer for the Canadian Wildlife Federation. While on assignment, he became aware of the mistreatment of sharks in the Galapagos Islands. From then on, he dedicated his life to holding the world accountable for our relationship to ocean life.

He kept so busy his whole life that Stewart never had time to start a family. In the absence of a love life, he yearned for something more: “I tried dating somebody, but I haven’t figured that out yet. I can’t wait to fall in love and maybe start a family,” he told Toronto Life in 2013. He left behind no children to bear the weight of his death. Instead, it was the grief of his parents and sister alone to bear.

In piecing together the last instalment of Stewart’s films, Brian and Sandy Stewart were weary with the task of retrieving footage from Rob’s password protected laptop. After several tries, they were successful at unlocking it with entering the word that so succinctly summarizes Rob’s motto in life: gratitude.

We can all take a lesson from Rob. Even in death, and despite all the treacherous dealings this world has to offer, there is always room for gratitude. Be grateful to your family. Be thankful for the privilege of living. And most of all, be gracious to our planet. She needs it more now than ever before.

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