I’ve always loved sharks. When I lived in Guam, I can remember my second-grade class going on a field trip to see sharks. A woman stood on the inside edge of a tank, holding up a giant hook with a bloody piece of meat, and one of my classmates made a fake move to push her in with the white tips that swarmed below. She didn’t go in, but it was thrilling to think so for a minute. Though the white tips were enclosed in a dirty tank that was much too small for them, I could see their beauty and grace–perfectly proportioned, smooth, sleek … streamlined. They were built to go, go, go, because a shark can never stop swimming, or ironically, they will drown.
In Rod Stewart’s documentary Sharkwater, he, too, was bit by the shark bug early in his life and went on to become an underwater photographer so he could study the sharks up close, becoming familiar with their habits when they decided to go near him. Stewart portrays the sharks as wise creatures, not the ignorant water dinosaurs who will eat license plates if they come across them in the water, as shown in Jaws. He films schools of hammerheads from below near Cocos Island, a beautiful sequence that looks like nature’s ballet as the hammerheads go through their mating rituals. The hammerheads are so sensitive to electromagnetic energy, he says, that he has to keep his heart rate down in order not to scare off these sharks.
Then Stewart surfaces from the dive, and the true purpose of the documentary is revealed. Stewart’s boat comes across fishermen illegally line fishing, a process where up to sixty miles of fishing line is sunk into the sea, the line baited with thousands of hooks. The fishing boat flees the scene, and Stewart and his crew try to clean up the mess the best they can, releasing those fish and sharks that are still living. By the time Stewart finishes, he counts more than one hundred dead sharks.
The goal of line fishing is to catch as many sharks as possible, and any tuna or sea turtles that are captured by the lines–well, too bad for them. The sharks are brought up to the boat, where they are definned and then their corpses are thrown into the sea. The fins are a tasteless cartilage that’s mixed with chicken or beef broth to make shark-fin soup, a dish that has grown in popularity because it is seen as a status symbol, billed as “food of the emperors.” And shark fins bring in a lot of money, up to $200 a fin, so people can make a fortune very quickly. The sea shown here is an aquatic Wild West, and sharks are unfortunately the buffalo.
Stewart casts himself as the main character of this documentary, and he comes off as egotistical and overwrought at times, using a voice eerily similar to the Morpheus character from The Matrix, but with purple prose-like content. The section where he films himself in a hospital room, displaying his emotional anguish after catching the flesh-eating bacteria, is hard to stomach and hammers home the phrase conceited ape, which Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson uses in the film. I think Sharkwater would have resonated with me more if Stewart had stuck to giving the sharks first billing rather than himself.