Saturday, November 8, 2008


Released in the U.S. in 2008 (2006 in Canada), Sharkwater is not, as one might think, a pretty documentary about sharks, but rather a passionate, powerful telling of a true horror story unfolding in our ocean waters. Few people know the details, and even fewer people are doing anything about it.

Sharkwater director Rob Stewart is one of the latter, a scientist and filmmaker who stumbled onto the disturbing and species-threatening industry of “shark finning,” taking place in various shark hot-spots around the world. We’ve all heard bits and pieces of the story, and are perhaps vaguely familiar with the global uptick in shark fin soup consumption, but did you know that the “finning” industry is detestable, corrupt and dangerous? Do you know that more than 100 million sharks are killed each year, and that sharks are a “keystone species,” meaning they are essential to marine ecosystems as predators? And did you know that only 5-10 people on average are killed per year by sharks? In convincing us of the innocence and lovability of sharks of all kinds, Stewart glibly claims more people are killed each year by soda vending machines. (This made us giggle, and I promised to look it up later.)*

Stewart and associate Paul Watson of the renegade Sea Shepherd Conservation Society get into a bit of a tangle with both poachers and the law (who, it turns out, are on the take) in Costa Rica’s Cocos Islands, and Stewart manages to film not only their dangerous attempts to restrain the poaching vessel, but their own subsequent arrest as well. From there, things just go downhill; Stewart contracts a “skin eating” bacteria, and fights for his life in a hospital, all the while wondering how he can get back to the secret fishing docks he’s discovered in order to continue his filming. He lies in a hospital bed, antibiotics dripping into his besieged body, worrying about dwindling shark numbers, and about how the woefully misunderstood shark has gone from predator to prey at a stunning pace.

The film starts out in a much more genteel way, with lovely visuals of sharks and other bizarre and beautiful sea creatures (not to be lost in all the “messaging” of the film is the fact that Stewart is a very talented cinematographer). His lifelong fascination and adoration of sharks spurred K and I to laugh at one point, and say, “Ok, we get it: he wants to BE a shark!” In one early underwater scene, he’s holding a shark and petting it, while a few others swim around him. Stewart’s behavior evoked more than one memory of the tragic life of Grizzly Man, but I shooed the images away before they could become too vivid in my head. It’s this unfathomable empathy and compassion for the creatures that drives him to saving them, that keeps his focus steady and unshakable. Sharkwater is in many ways tremendously inspirational and moving, but the spark of passion in Stewart is one of the most touching aspects of the film.

There is some good news at the end of the film. Just when you think all may be lost, you feel some faith being restored to the “system,” to international law, and to humanity in general; you feel motivated to get behind this or some other cause, to spend your life doing something more important than bringing home a paycheck. That’s a sign of a job well done. From the kid’s perspective, well, the battle with the poachers and the increasing tension around that whole segment prompted K to say at one point, “Wow, this is such a good movie!” (I have to interject here that K was lucky enough to actually go shark diving in Hawaii a few years ago, in one of those cages that allow tourists and amateurs to get surprisingly close to the sharks. He, like many boys, has a shark fixation of his own, which is one reason we rented the movie, and I think he was pretty horrified at what was going on. It wasn’t exactly what we expected.)

But here’s the caveat: there is brutal cruelty in this movie, and it often comes without warning. Poachers swiftly cut the fins off living, breathing sharks and throw them back in the water, where they sink and die a slow death or are eaten alive. It ain’t pretty. If you think you and your kids are up for this, I say thumbs up with one particular warning: about half way in, where the dangers of “long line fishing” are being discussed (many sea creatures are killed as collateral damage using this method), there’s a bucolic scene of a sea turtle swimming along in his habitat. It suddenly cuts to an image of another turtle, caught up in fishing line, and the camera follows it from under the water to the deck of a boat, where it is quickly killed in a most vile manner. Watch for the scene, then hit “PAUSE” when you see the turtle in fishing line, and declare a break to your viewers, fast-forwarding when the kids run off for a snack or the bathroom. They really don’t need to see it. At any age.

You can visit a web site set up by the filmmaker, and help the good fight by making a donation, or by becoming involved in other ways. Yeah.

*A search online for this fact was fruitless, except for an page that cited research showing that, “in 1995, for example — the most recent year for which I was able to find an accounting of deaths due to vending machine tipovers — two people died as a result of being crushed by falling soda machines in the U.S., as compared to zero shark-related deaths in the same twelve-month period.


  1. I have a bit of a shark fascination myself. Definitely going to rent this one (and will forward the turtle killing scene, since I adore sea turtles and that sounds disturbing!)

    Thanks for writing such a comprehensive review.

  2. thanks for commenting! I appreciate that YOU appreciate the lengthy review... Nice blog of your own, btw!



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