Original-Cin Q&A: Sharkwater's crew on activism and Rob Stewart, 'If people knew better, they'd do better'

It’s been 20 months since Canadian environmentalist and global shark-protector Rob Stewart drowned in a diving accident near the Florida Keys while filming his third movie, Sharkwater Extinction

But he scored a posthumous victory in California in September.

The state banned “drift nets,” unbelievably destructive filters that trapped and suffocated virtually everything that swam into them. In Sharkwater Extinction, Stewart’s cameras catch various species of trapped sharks, tragically gasping for oxygen, just off Catalina Island near Los Angeles.

“It went through the Senate and the House and was signed by the governor,” says Brock Cahill, a California yoga instructor who joined Stewart after seeing the Canadian’s breakthrough 2006 film Sharkwater, about the massacre caused by the shark-fin trade. Cahill – who’s been promoting the movie nationwide with fellow Stewart pal/activist Julie Andersen – took part in that shoot.

Stewart: “The most powerful weapon in this revolution is going to be the camera.”

Stewart: “The most powerful weapon in this revolution is going to be the camera.”

“It was a 20-year fight, before we even got there,” Cahill says. “It was propped up by special interest groups with a lot of cash, and every time they’d get somewhere people would be like, ‘We’ll just shove this for now because somebody made a stink about it.’ They were very vocal and very obstinate.”

Then came Stewart’s footage. “No one had gone on dives to get footage of this previously. No one had shown the world what was going on under the surface, so that footage made all the difference in the world. 

“It’s really a true testament to the power of film. Rob’s motto was always, if people knew better, they’d do better.”

Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek sat down with Cahill (founder of the SeaChange Agency) and Andersen (founder of Shark Angels) to talk about Stewart and about being the keepers of his legacy, now and down the road.

ORIGINAL-CIN: You obviously come away from this movie with sadness, because it ends with Rob’s death. But it seems like the secondary feeling should be anger, after Rob discovers (via random lab tests) that so much of what we consume secretly contains shark, which can be toxic. Shouldn’t the FDA be involved in the U.S.?

JULIE ANDERSEN: “You would think, right? But it turns out, it’s up to the consumer. There are no labeling laws that actually require you to properly label. Even fish, the Oceana study that came out a little while ago said 45% of the fish that Canadians eat is mislabeled.

“That to me is outrageous. But you’re right. Why isn’t the government stepping in and making sure labeling is correct, not just on food but on makeup, supplements. It’s crazy.”

CAHILL: “Shark liver is particularly toxic. But they promote it as a supplement, as a detox.” (Laughs).

JULIE: “It has methylmercury in it and neurotoxins that have led to things like Parkinson’s Disease, so it’s crazy to think that’s what we’re consuming.”

OC: You both joined Rob, inspired after seeing Sharkwater. Tell me about that.

ANDERSEN: “Way before Rob became the powerful figure he was, way before he had the force of the world behind him, he was just an incredibly optimistic and hopeful person, someone you met, who you knew was going to change the world and you just wanted to be a part of that.”

CAHILL: “I first read about him, talking about freediving with sharks and then secondly seeing it in the film. And I was flabbergasted by this young man and his sense of enthusiasm. When he took me out on a shark dive for the first time, it was awesome.”

OC: Considering the image of sharks, was there any part of you…

ANDERSEN: (To Cahill, laughing). “Oh c’mon, the sh—your pants moment. You’ve got to say it.”

CAHILL: “Absolutely. In that moment, it was like, ‘What’s going to happen here?’ That trip was whale sharks. They like to rub up against you and snuggle you and stuff. But for a novice that doesn’t know that much about sharks, there’s a 40-foot-long school-bus coming at you. Wow, that’s a big fish. It puts your heart back in your throat for a second. 

“But after that we swam with all kinds of species. (In this film off Cat Island in the Bahamas) we were in the water with Oceanic Whitetips, and they have a formidable reputation. They’re seen as the most dangerous shark in the world, according to Jacques Cousteau.

“Rob and I had never swum with this species before, and they were very cheeky, for lack of a better word. They were kind of mischievous, calculating and they really size you up with their expressive eyes. And we didn’t know what they were going to do. And they start playing tag team, one shark is distracting you over here. You’re filming something, and another one swims up between your legs and into your face.”

Stewart and an endangered friend

Stewart and an endangered friend

ANDERSEN: “Oceanic Whitetips have no concept of personal space.” (Laughs).

OC: Rob often talked about the possibility of being killed. And there are guns fired at his crew in this movie.

ANDERSEN: “Well, shark fin is being traded the same way as guns, human trafficking, illegal weapons. It’s all the same cartels, all the same players. Every day we find ourselves literally outmanned and outgunned. Here we are, just caring about the oceans and suddenly we’re up against the Mafia and criminals. We’ve all been in situations our parents wouldn’t be too happy to hear about.” (Laughs).

OC: Such as?

ANDERSEN: “Gunshots, boarding illegal fishing vessels, men chasing us with machetes down the beach. That (last one) was Mozambique for me. It was absolutely insane. We had pirates chasing us down the beach with machetes because we removed their longlines. 

“Are we doing this because we’re daredevils? No, we’re doing this because it’s what we have to do to bring the issues forward. These are the people we face.”

OC: Julie, you gave up a career in advertising to join Rob’s crew. What did your parents think about it?

ANDERSEN: “I had everything I wanted at a young age and I was super successful. And then I gave it all up to do this. They were really curious, and, at the same time, they were really proud. I was raised by parents who were strongly committed to the planet and to nature and made sure that I grew up aware.”

OC: There were times watching the movie, where Rob would be witness to something and stay totally cool, and I couldn’t believe it. Like with Mark the Shark (a Florida boater who’d take tourists out to catch sharks and throw them back. They’d invariably drown, having already begun to suffocate).

CAHILL: “People come back to that example all the time. ‘How can you just, like, talk to this guy when, obviously, what you want to do is punch him in the face?’ 

Robbie was really good at that. He was into finding ways to work with people in order to change their minds. He’d say, ‘You can’t wipe ‘em off the planet or scream at them. Nobody listens to you when you’re yelling. We have to find a way to connect.’ He was brilliant at that.”

OC: So, what now? Will there be more films without Rob to film them?

ANDERSEN: “Absolutely! Rob had five other treatments he’d written out, he had series he’d written out. He’d literally had his entire next 10 to 20 years mapped out in terms of what he wanted to tackle.”

BROCK: “There are a couple of things in place. A feature film is obviously a good way to get information out. But Rob and I had been discussing how we want to build more powerful content that doesn’t necessarily have to take three years to produce.

“We’re in a state of dire urgency at this point, so we need to step up and get it going while it’s happening. We’re looking at a YouTube channel, 10 episodes of 10 minutes each.”

OC: Do you ever get discouraged?

ANDERSEN: “Yes. All the time. But we learned from the master. Rob had witnessed so much, so many atrocities committed on the animal he loved. Regardless of what he saw, he always remained optimistic.

“He had such a sense of hope, that’s what Brock and I took away from him. Because it is easy to get discouraged. But we count our small wins and use each other for support, but we use Rob for inspiration.”

CAHILL: “He’d sit me down and say, ‘This anger is going to go nowhere. The most powerful weapon in this revolution is going to be the camera, it’s not going to be the shotgun.”