Twenty feet down through the hazy blue of the Caribbean, several lean, grey Zeppelins cruise silently by. Reef sharks are on the prowl. I zip myself into my wetsuit, slipping on fins, a mask and breathing apparatus, and prepare to dive in. Christina, a shark feeder, is stepping into a chainmail suit to guard against overenthusiastic mouths. No such protection is available to me or my dive buddy, Rob Stewart, a 28-year-old Canadian documentary maker and photographer. No cage, nothing.
Grand Bahama is one of the last places on earth where you are guaranteed to find sharks and it is here that I have agreed to test Stewart’s theory that these much-feared creatures are the most misunderstood of all animals. His first feature film, Sharkwater, which opens this month in Britain, is a passionate and powerful plea to save the world’s oldest and largest predator before it is too late. It is not natural history in the measured tones of David Attenborough, but a young man’s urgent cri de coeur.
Sharks evolved 450 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs, and have survived five major extinctions. They range from the 9in pygmy shark to the 40ft whale shark; most live for between 20 and 30 years (some, like the spiny dogfish, up to 100). Far from being the solitary hunters of mythology, sharks are intelligent, social animals, many living in schools with more complex migration patterns than birds. Out of more than 360 species, only three have been involved in a significant number of fatal, unprovoked attacks on humans: the tiger, great white and bull sharks.
But now, thanks to the shark fin trade and unscrupulous fishing methods, sharks are facing their greatest ever threat. The shark specialist group of the World Conservation Union claimed recently that almost every species of large shark found in European waters is heading for extinction. There are 13 species classified as critically endangered, meaning their numbers will decrease by 80 per cent within three generations. Exact data is in short supply, but Stewart estimates that 90 per cent of sharks have disappeared in the past three decades, with up to 100 million being killed a year.
As apex predators at the top of the ocean’s food chain, sharks are not accustomed to being preyed upon, and their lifecycle – slow growing, long living, late breeding – makes it hard for them to cope with sustained attack from driftnets, longlines and bottom trawling. Stewart, who comes across more like a young Keanu Reeves than a biologist (though he is a graduate of universities in Ontario, Jamaica and Kenya), argues that this is not just a blow for sharks. By removing the top predator we are pushing the ocean ecosystem that we rely on to regulate our climate into an unknown future, which could be potentially disastrous for man.
More than 70 per cent of the world is made up of oceans and they are home to algae – plants that range in size from single-celled organisms to massive crops of kelp – which through photosynthesis remove carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxygen.
Climate experts such as Sir James Lovelock have declared that algae is perhaps the single most important cooling element on earth and Stewart speculates that by killing off sharks, smaller organisms will flourish and consume greater quantities of algae. The shark is essential in controlling populations of much smaller fish. As Stewart’s voiceover on Sharkwater puts it: ‘The animal we fear the most is the one we can’t live without.’
Stewart’s bond with the oceans began as a child. He grew up in Toronto. Every summer the family would take a holiday to the Caribbean, which is where he began diving with sharks and developed an interest in underwater photography. At the age of 20 he accepted an assignment to photograph his favourite species of shark, the hammerhead, in the Galapagos Islands, but instead of taking beautiful underwater shots he came across 60 miles of illegally set longlines.
Longlines contain hundreds (sometimes thousands) of baited hooks, are up to 80 miles long and indiscriminately catch turtles, sharks and albatrosses. The ones Stewart encountered had more than 200 dead sharks hooked to them. Shocked by his find, Stewart set out to publicise the practice. After two years, he realised that photography alone was not going to change the world, and so, aged 22, he decided to make a movie about the plight of sharks.
The great hurdle to understanding sharks is fear, Stewart argues. So how dangerous are they? ‘The reality is they’re not out to get human beings; they don’t eat people,’ he says. ‘Once in a while they make a mistake and bite someone, but even then they realise their mistake and don’t eat the person.’ It is thought that sharks often mistake the movement of swimmers for that of a wounded seal, a shark’s favourite meal. ‘If a tiger shark had wanted to eat me it would have done so by now.’
The facts are these. Between 60 and 100 people are bitten by sharks each year, leading to about five highly publicised deaths. Most of the bites are superficial. That compares with about 100 deaths from elephant and tiger attacks, and perhaps more than 1,000 from crocodiles. So why the great fear of sharks? In the 20th century, two notorious incidents stand out. First, in July 1916, what became known as ‘the Jersey Shore attacks’ resulted in four people being killed and one injured in shark attacks on America’s east coast, cementing the idea of the creatures as man-eaters and leading President Woodrow Wilson to declare a ‘war on sharks’.
Two days later a great white was captured; its stomach was found to contain human remains. Second is the story of the USS Indianapolis, a cruiser torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea weeks before the end of the Second World War. Most of the 1,200 crew members survived the explosions and bailed out. But help didn’t arrive for five days, leading to what observers have termed the most deadly shark attack in history, with white-tip: sharks attacking the living and dragging off the dead. Only 317 sailors were picked up alive.
Man’s morbid fascination with the shark existed long before this. In Moby-Dick, published in 1851, Herman Melville’s narrator talks of the ‘accursed shark’ and describes how when a whale was killed, sharks gathered around the ship ‘like hungry dogs… ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them’.
In recent decades, one story has come to dominate our view of sharks: Jaws. The tale of how a great white terrorises the Long Island resort town of Amity led to what the novel’s author Peter Benchley described as ‘moral panic’.
Benchley, who adapted his book for Steven Spielberg’s 1975 breakthrough movie, radically changed his opinion of sharks in the years after the film came out, eventually offering a mea culpa not long before he died in 2006: ‘We knew so little back then, and have learnt so much since, that I couldn’t possibly write the same story today. I know now that the monster I created was largely a fiction. Today, I could not portray the shark as a villain; it would have to be written as the victim. Worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.’
Stewart believes it is time that Spielberg – who had been due to co-operate with Sharkwater, but pulled out at the last minute – offered his own penance. ‘I think he has a moral obligation. He’s made a shitload of money out of Jaws. I know there was no bad intention but now he knows the damage he’s done he should rectify it.’
Two dozen reef sharks are swirling around me, jostling for their dinner. But however close they swim to my face, a nonchalant flick of their tails is enough to ensure they avoid touching my mask. They flock to Christina, circling her until she pulls out another fish from her metal tin and offers it up to the quickest mouth. At first, my hands are clamped to my thighs, Rob’s words of warning still ringing in my ears: ‘Don’t wave your hands around while they’re being fed, the white skin looks like fish and they might give you a nibble.’ But after five minutes I no longer see a gang of merciless killers in front of me.
The evil eyes, the cruel, gaping mouths and panic-inducing fins of my imagination seem quite different at close contact. There is a stark beauty in their streamlined form but also an improbable vulnerability as they compete for Christina’s bounty. I find myself cupping their swishing tails as they pass inches from my face.
Shark feeding is self-evidently artificial; you feel their power most in chance encounters. Usually sharks will keep away from divers, but sometimes you can spot them in the distance, cruising effortlessly, a picture of efficiency and independence. At one point, as we swim underwater towards the shark feeding site known as Shark Junction, enjoying the changing topography, I sense something out of the corner of my eye and look up to see the white belly of a 7ft reef shark as it passes overhead. I look behind to see another one shoot by. It’s not frightening, but liberating.
Stewart’s original aim was to capture the beauty of these ‘fallen gods’ – his working title – in an underwater art movie. But as he learnt more about the extent of man’s role in their destruction the film took on a campaigning edge, and became an undercover investigation, a wake-up call and a manifesto for change.
The central drama is rooted in the time Stewart spent with renegade environmentalist ‘Captain’ Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a radical environmentalist group that directly confronts whaling boats and shark fishermen.
In 2002 Abel Pacheco, the then Costa Rican president, had invited Watson to bring his ship, the Ocean Warrior, to Cocos Island, a world heritage site with the greatest concentration of sharks on earth. For Stewart it was the perfect chance to hitch a ride to a place he was sure to find good footage of sharks.
But before Watson and his crew could get anywhere near Cocos they became embroiled in a confrontation with a Costa Rican fishing boat illegally longlining sharks in Guatemalan waters. The confrontation set off a bizarre chain of events, which led Watson and Stewart to flee to a Costa Rican port where they were charged with seven counts of attempted murder and placed under house arrest. Stewart met a local environmentalist who suggested that the Taiwanese mafia was behind their arrest.
They broke house arrest to investigate and found a network of private docks run by the Taiwanese where thousands of shark fins, from a dozen different species, lay drying in the sun. The authorities made it clear that Watson and Stewart had dug too deeply and were interfering in the billion-dollar fin trade, in which Costa Rica is a serious player. Word reached Watson that they were about to be detained indefinitely and they made a dash for international waters, pursued by a machine-gun toting coast guard boat.
Watson, an ursine, silver-haired Canadian in his mid-fifties, is the unexpected star of the show, an ethical pirate (his ship even flies the Jolly Roger) confronting the fishermen head on, defiant in the face of official sanctions. Before leaving for the Bahamas I tracked him down by phone to Australia, from where he was about to sail to the Antarctic to do battle with Japanese whaling ships (later resulting in two members of his crew being, in his words, ‘held hostage’ on board a Japanese vessel). I asked him about his controversial tactics. In the past he has been criticised by fellow environmentalists who argue that his willingness to ram whalers puts lives at risk and has made the anti-whaling cause synonymous no telecheck payday loans with extremism.
‘We shut down whaling in Iceland for 17 years so it doesn’t matter if people have been turned off,’ he said jovially. ‘We’re not a protest organisation, we’re an enforcement agency. I’m not really concerned about our critics as our clients are sharks, whales and seals.’
Whales may command more public sympathy, but in terms of numbers and economic impact, sharks are in a different league, he said. ‘The number of sharks killed a year number 70 million, while there are about 3,000 whales taken. Shark fins are the most lucrative contraband in the world, along with the illegal arms and drugs trades.’
Watson was excited about the election of Australia’s new Labour government which has promised to send the navy to monitor Japanese whaling in Antarctica. A few weeks later it emerged that the Japanese had agreed with the International Whaling Commission to ‘postpone’ hunting humpbacks, a sign that Australian pressure is beginning to work.
The contrast with the unloved shark – supported by no such public affection, election manifestos or international bodies – couldn’t be clearer. The whale was once just a monster, too. ‘I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it,’ was Captain Ahab’s description of Moby-Dick.
But growing public outrage in the 1970s over bloody film footage of whalers firing harpoons into these huge mammals, and campaigns by organisations such as Greenpeace, saw the whale become a totemic symbol for environmental abuse. This eventually led to the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, and in 1994 the International Whaling Commission declared the Southern Ocean around Antarctica a whale sanctuary. While Norway has since opted out of the moratorium and Japan euphemistically argued it is engaged only in ‘scientific whaling’, there is at least legislation banning the trade in whale meat.
Cites, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, lists 10 of the great whale species in the southern oceans in its most serious Appendix 1 of creatures facing extinction. Only three sharks, the great white, whale and porbeagle, are covered, by less stringent Cites appendices. Very crudely, the problem is that while whales are considered wildlife and thus entitled to detailed protection, sharks are classified as fish and therefore subject to very flimsy fishing management rules.
Even with these rules in place, some observers believe that no fisheries will remain by the midpoint of this century. Cod is now commercially extinct in Canada’s Grand Banks and near to collapse in the North Atlantic and North Sea, while lucrative species such as bluefin tuna and swordfish are close to disappearing from the Mediterranean. The late marine biologist Random Myers claimed that within 15 years of industrial fishing arriving in a region, fish stocks fell by 90 per cent.
The crux of the shark issue is China’s enormous appetite for shark fin. According to a recent report by the conservation groups Wildaid and Oceana, Hong Kong and China account for 96 per cent of global shark fin imports, with Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore and, perhaps surprisingly, Spain the world’s biggest producers (Spain is considered the most ruthless fishing nation in Europe, with a huge fleet that fishes much further away from its own shores than countries such as Britain).
The fin is far more lucrative than the rest of the animal, selling at between $400 and $1,000 per kilogram. The fin trade is legal, though the practice of finning – in which a live shark has its fin removed at sea, before being thrown back into the water to bleed to death – is illegal in America and, in theory at least, Europe, where there is a nominal ban. Despite its financial value, the fin is flavourless and is used only to add texture to food, though many Chinese believe it protects against cancer and other diseases.
Under Mao Tse-tung, shark fin soup was seen as extravagant and bourgeois, but in the 1980s the dish became acceptable again. That, combined with the rise of the middle classes in China and neighbouring countries, has seen the soup become a fixture at weddings and corporate functions.
Demand does not just exist in Asia. On my return to London I went to Soho to see how prevalent shark fin is in Britain’s Chinese restaurants. It was shocking to find it on the menu at dozens of places from standard Chinatown haunts to more sophisticated establishments. The much-praised Hakkasan serves Thai-style shark fin soup for £55, while at trendy Bar Shu, one of the capital’s best new restaurants, its own shark fin dish costs £48. Rick Stein even included a recipe for shark vindaloo in his Seafood Odyssey book and television series. Shark meat (often referred to as ‘flake’) is growing in popularity as it is low in cholesterol and appears frequently on gastro-pub menus.
The best films need a villain, and in Stewart’s documentry the face of the finning industry is William Goh, the MD of Rabbit Brand Shark Fin in Singapore. ‘Shark is very kind animal?’ he grins to camera. ‘That is bull-sheeeet! No, the shark is very very fierce with sharp teeth…’
It’s easy to laugh at the comic-book Goh. But is the shark really as safe a swimming companion as Stewart’s film suggests? A quick trawl of the media digs up an array of victim statements from around the world. Last January, Australian diver Eric Nerhus was ‘swallowed’ head-first by a 13ft great white off Cape Howe, New South Wales. He managed to escape after stabbing the shark in the eye with a chisel. Achmat Hassiem, a 24-year-old lifeguard, lost his right foot in an attack in Cape Town two years ago: ‘It was going for my brother.
I shouted, “Taariq! Shark!” and then started splashing about in the water so that I would attract the shark to me,’ he told the press. ‘The shark turned around and came towards me. It grabbed my ankle and shook me, then pulled me under water. I thought the game was over. But as I went down I started kicking it. And then it let go… I looked back and saw the shark coming towards me again, but the guys in the boat pulled me in before he got to me. They saved my life.’
In fact, in the Bahamas, Stewart admits that sharks are peaceful creatures, but only up to a point. There’s a euphoric high to be had from being close to sharks, which like most thrills leads one to want more, and soon I’m asking Stewart if we can dive with tiger sharks, something that was mooted at the outset. Stewart is cautious. They will be hard to find, he says. The most likely spot would be in deep water where we will be exposed from below as well as above and around. Tigers will bump you and sometimes get their teeth stuck in your wetsuit, he adds, pointing to a small tear in his suit.
And we will need a big stick to beat them away if they get too close. Other experts I consult tell me it would be madness to go looking for tigers. Most sharks are known to be extremely fussy eaters, but tigers will eat almost anything. They are slower, bigger and much more curious than reef sharks, and many experts believe they are more aggressive than even the famed great white. Initially keen, I decide not to push it.
The film’s tagline is ‘the truth will surface’. But when one looks into it, reliable statistics relating to sharks are few and far between, due to a lack of research and the murky nature of the fin trade.
Stewart’s claims that 100 million sharks are being killed each year is significantly higher than the most commonly used upper estimate – from a team of American researchers based in Hong Kong – of 73 million. But while perhaps overegging the stats, Stewart seems to be broadly accurate. And Ali Hood, the director of conservation at the Shark Trust in Plymouth, a UK charity that campaigns for the protection of sharks, believes the film is the best chance there is to rehabilitate these creatures.
‘I’d endorse the film’s overall message and from the point of view of shark conservation it’s a fantastic opportunity to bring it to public attention. What many people do not appreciate is the extent to which Europe contributes to the shark fin trade – the EU is now the world’s largest exporter of fins to China, the biggest consumer market.’
Neither does Britain get off the hook. About half of the 30 species of shark living in British waters are threatened by overfishing, with spiny dogfish, porbeagle, common skate and angel shark considered critically endangered, with the latter now extinct in the North Sea. Only the basking shark, the second-largest fish after the whale shark, which has been overfished in the past, is protected by wildlife legislation. And there are no catch limits for sharks fished in inter-national waters.
Saving sharks is not an easy job. Later, dressed only in surfing shorts and sipping a pina colada by the hotel pool, Stewart admits to being burnt out. The film cost $2 million and took five years to make, and he is now in the middle of a two-year effort to promote it. It has been tough. ‘In the beginning I just winged it and rented the cameras as I went. I thought, “If I go into debt a little bit on this I’ll be OK”. It was just blind ambition.’
He returned home from his trip to Cocos and the Galapagos Islands suffering from dengue fever, Western Isle virus and TB. He was $200,000 in debt and had a film no one would touch (the studios didn’t think that a conservation movie about sharks would sell). Several times he gave up on the project. Two years of editing later, the largest distributor and biggest cinema owner in Canada both agreed to buy it.
The documentary made a million dollars at the Canadian box office, outgrossing the documentaries Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth on its opening weekend – and although it didn’t do so well in America, Stewart has high hopes for its performance in Europe, central America, Australia and Singapore. ‘I think it can be one of the top five documentaries ever released,’ he says with characteristic optimism.
But it is about more than box office returns. Stewart wants his film to bring about real change, specifically to help establish an international shark fishing commission (to set international agreements on shark fishing) and a global ban on finning. ‘Above all else I hope it decreases the demand for shark fin because as long as there’s a demand there will always be people finning shark.’
The film has been well reviewed and won a string of awards, most notably in New York and Toronto, though some critics complained that there was too much of Stewart’s muscled physique, and more of his personal story than was perhaps necessary. Stewart, showing brief annoyance, responds that it is his personality that makes the film accessible to people who would never go to see a nature documentary.
‘People can relate to me because I’m not a 55-year-old scientist with a grey beard. It’s a movie about a kid who tried to go out and save sharks, got in way over his head, got a flesh-eating disease, got arrested and almost died trying to bring this issue to light.’
He has no plans to make further films about sharks, but says they will always remain his first love. ‘They give me perspective. So often you get caught up in what you’re doing, but it’s really insignificant. Sharks have been cruising the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and not worrying about anything. I grew up really fast, but being in the water with them brings you back to being a child again.’
‘Sharkwater’ is released on February 22. For more information on sharks see www.sharktrust.org