In “Sharkwater,” filmmaker Rob Stewart sets out to make a cinematic science lesson about his misunderstood title creature and unexpectedly winds up immersed in a perilous adventure that sounds more like the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters than a low-budget documentary about shark poachers. While his film has rocky spots, it powerfully underscores two truths: Sharks are indeed worth preserving and the shark population is being decimated, courtesy of human greed.
Rather like an aquatic Grizzly Man with sanity intact, Stewart, an underwater photographer who has long felt drawn to sharks, sets us straight on sharks’ true nature and character. For starters, sharks almost never bite people, Stewart and various experts inform us. When they do, it’s by mistake. Additionally, sharks, which have survived five extinctions and predate the dinosaur, are essential to the stability of the food chain.
Stewart’s foremost concern isthe drastic decline in shark numbers. The culprit: poachers.
Shark fins, a high-end soup ingredient in Asia, have become such a valuable commodity that a “shark-fin mafia” has arisen. In shark-rich waters, these hunters capture sharks, slice off their fins, and toss the dead or dying animals back into the sea.
The film is strongest when Stewart is hooked up with renegade conservationist Paul Watson. Initially invited by the Costa Rican government to conduct anti-poacher boat patrols around Cocos Island, the men get caught up in a treacherous scenario involving boat ramming, gunshots, government corruption, and attempted-murder charges. Police as well as pirates pursue them. They flee for their lives.
Stewart, a first-time filmmaker, is rough at the helm. His fondness for first-person mode leads to too much focus on himself. His tendency to attribute an almost exalted quality to sharks is hard to buy.
But the film still has plenty going for it, in both spirit and substance. It succeeds as a shark 101 course that boosts the creature’s image. It proves both entertaining and enlightening when presenting the battle between conservation and greed.
There also is Watson. The documentary equivalent of a terrific supporting character, he’s a compelling testament to the power of activism. All it takes is a “few passionate” individuals to change the world, he says — a statement affirmed by the fact that several counties, responding to public outrage, have enacted shark-protection laws.
The underwater footage, meanwhile, is spectacular. A scene of a cluster of hammerheads swimming near the Galapagos is particularly extraordinary.
Starring Rob Stewart, Paul Watson
Directed by Rob Stewart
Running time 1 hour, 29 minutes