Go in the Sharkwater

Rob Stewart’s documentary explores the sea’s most misunderstood creature

Behold the shark! "The very symbol of impending danger," intones the narrator of an old air force training film.

The scratchy black-and-white footage, cut into the opening reel of the new documentary Sharkwater, shows the piscine predators in a frenzy underwater as an airman floats on his makeshift raft above. He is advised to smack the surface of the water with his palm, to scatter shreds of paper, and to yell — all tactics to scare off the dangerous beasts lurking below. "Remember," the solemn, disembodied voice says, "you are smarter than a shark."

Maybe.

It turns out that our notions about sharks are as antiquated as this instructional film and its stentorian narrator. According to Rob Stewart, who filmed Sharkwater and narrates it in decidedly more Valley-boy cadences, sharks are "the architects of our world."

You see, Stewart loves sharks. He has loved them since he was a kid, way back when he realized the grownups were lying to him about the shark's lust for human flesh. "For as long as I can remember, I've been drawn to sharks," he says. "They're the most amazing and mysterious animal on Earth — the only one that's perfect."

His passion for the ferocious fish led him to become an underwater photographer and biologist — and, inevitably, to make Sharkwater, which aims to rehabilitate the seafaring carnivore's image.

Sharks are brainless eating machines. Wrong. Sharks don't get cancer. Wrong. Sharks are more threatening to humans than threatened by humans. Wrong again.

It would be tempting to write off young Stewart as some narcissistic aquaboy — especially given the many scenes in which he appears swimming with and caressing his subjects. But unlike Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell, who attempted to make bears his playmates and eventually died for it, Stewart's forays into the shark's milieu inspire awe, even envy, rather than derision. And his footage is too good, his story too gripping, to be dismissed.

Hundreds of sharks swim into the frames of the aquamarine-tinted documentary; thousands of small fish wind through the water in columns that squirm and pulsate like single organisms. Stewart finds swarms of hammerheads — truly the most freakish among sharks — and gives breathtaking scale to the whale shark, nature's largest fish, by swimming next to it.

Soon after he has established the shark as a poor, misunderstood, unfairly vilified creature, Stewart finds the real heavy of his story: the "shark fin mafia," a network that spans from shark poachers to the restaurants that use the fish's dorsal fin in a Chinese delicacy called shark fin soup.

It's a multibillion-dollar market, owing to the fact that the soup is considered a symbol of prosperity and a tonic for health. Although the shark's fin is flavorless, its mythical powers fetch as much as $200 a pound. A single pectoral fin from a whale shark can command up to $15,000.

To feed this growing demand, "long line" fishermen set baited lines across hundreds of yards of international waters and then lay in wait. They reel in whatever they catch — usually sharks, sometimes other fish or even turtles. One such operation, which Stewart and his crew discover near the Galápagos Islands, nets 160 sharks. The fishermen slice off their fins and throw the carcasses back into the ocean. Many suffocate on the lines; the rest face gruesome deaths below the surface.

The Website of the Germany-based Shark Project heralds the coming "Chinese disaster!": "If the Chinese economy and the related wealth continue to grow steadily, approximately 250 million Chinese will have the funds to afford shark fin soup on a regular basis within five years.... This will most likely be the ultimate end of the sharks!" Both the great white and the whale shark are endangered species.

No one feels the loss more than Stewart. "Nobody noticed," he says in voiceover, a touch bitterly. "Everyone wanted to save pandas, elephants, and bears." According to the UK-based Shark Trust, Atlantic shark populations have declined by as much as 80 percent in the past 15 years.

Stewart teams with conservationist and former Greenpeacer Paul Watson, of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, to go after the poachers. What follows is a high-seas adventure worthy of its high-def cinematic treatment — pirate boat rammings, water cannon shootouts, public corruption, guerrilla filmmaking.

The film's transition from nature doc to exposé takes a brief, almost comic turn in an interview with William Goh, an executive for Rabbit Brand Shark Fin in China. Goh is an exquisite salesman, more intent on convincing Stewart of the shark's wickedness than defending his product.

Ahab had his whale, and Goh has his shark. His hatred is equal to Stewart's love. "You will die," he says, referring to any human encounter with sharks. "Pain and you die." Popular opinion is on Goh's side, as we see in a montage of breathless news anchors citing shark attacks, and a Time magazine cover from a few years back declaring "The Summer of the Shark." Despite the hype, fewer than five people are killed by sharks each year, compared to 100 deaths at the clutches of elephants and tigers.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea to come out of Sharkwater is the proposition that, after 450 million years on Earth — predating land vertebrates like dinosaurs and dwarfing human existence — sharks still don't know what we are. Turns out we don't know them so well either.

 
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