On February 3rd, 2017, Rob Stewart, among the world’s foremost experts on sharks, was found dead at a depth of 70 meters, after disappearing during a dive on a wreck in the Florida Keys. A few days earlier, I learned my friend Rob had disappeared from a Facebook post — a post I read a dozen times in utter disbelief that such an experienced diver would vanish like that. Rob took risks, but they were calculated risks: he always found a way out. I tracked the desperate search to find him via websites. Sea Shepherd dispatched a ship. Richard Branson sent his private helicopter. The extensive search was partly financed by crowd-funding.
It was a high-profile search because of Stewart’s iconic status in the world of shark conservation. Single-handedly, Rob turned around opinion on sharks from much-feared predator to playing an important role in marine ecosystems. After graduating in marine biology, in Toronto, Canada, Rob Stewart quickly charted a path as a passionate marine activist.
If sharks could talk, probably the first word they would utter is “Litigation!” because over 100 million sharks are killed each year. The majority of these sharks are killed for their fins, in a practice where the fin is sliced off and the shark is tossed back in the water to die a cruel death. The fins end up in shark-fin soup. This traditional Chinese medicinal concoction has no proven basis for the miraculous cures it claims, such as countering arthritis, psoriasis, rheumatism, eczema, acne, allergies — and even reckoned to counter cancer. Shark-fin has no taste, and little texture, since it is cartilage. But based on Chinese myth and ancient belief in the strength of sharks, they are pursued relentlessly — pushing shark species to the brink of extinction.
I remember Rob railing about this in the Galapagos. At that time he was a wildlife photographer — I teamed up with him to write magazine stories. He was extremely frustrated because campaigning for sharks in magazines and in print was going nowhere. He swore that if he got the chance, he would bring this urgent issue to the attention of the entire world. He determined that the message needed to be delivered differently. So he rented a high-definition video camera, read up on how to use it, joined a Sea Shepherd boat headed for Ecuador, and worked with Captain Paul Watson to confront shark poachers on the high seas. Rob switched his goal to making a full-length documentary.
Documentaries That Changed Minds
Persevering for four years and putting all his resources to work, Rob launched his documentary Sharkwater in 2006. Remarkable footage showed Rob hugging a shark underwater, telling us how misunderstood these predators are. He left no stone unturned — Rob even tried to confront Steven Spielberg about the sensationalizing of sharks as predators in his blockbuster film Jaws. But Spielberg declined an interview at the last moment. Sharkwater smashed Canadian box-office records as the highest-grossing documentary in Canadian history. The documentary picked up 40 international awards.
Capitalizing on his success, Rob garnered corporate sponsorship and funding to the tune of several million dollars to make a new documentary, titled Revolution, about the imminent demise of ocean ecosystems. But when he turned up as MC at a rally against the fossil-fuel industry in Canada, the funding vanished overnight. Rob had to go it alone again, working with a small crew. “This century we’re facing some pretty catastrophic consequences of our actions,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Canadian Press. “We’re facing a world by 2050 that has no fish, no reefs, no rainforest, and nine billion people on a planet that already can’t sustain seven billion people. So it’s going to be a really dramatic century unless we do something about it.” The end of the documentary shows Rob in Saipan, where grade 6 students, after watching Sharkwater, persuaded their senators to ban fishing of sharks in their waters, and to create a marine sanctuary. Rob showed up to celebrate this major victory.
More recently, having discovered that blue sharks were being slaughtered in massive numbers for the pet food trade, salmon sharks were being killed for their livers, and other shark species were being killed for use in cosmetic products, Rob set about making a sequel to Sharkwater, titled Sharkwater Extinction. He launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised a shooting budget of over $200,000 by August 2016. Rob was excited as shooting started in December 2016.
A Senseless Death
Rob took lots of risks in his passionate pursuit of saving sharks. He dived with schooling hammerheads. He dived with great whites. But the sharks themselves were not the danger, he said. Rob was always pushing his boundaries. He took great risks — but they were calculated risks, given his advanced level of knowledge and experience. He logged thousands of dives. He survived a number of scrapes over the years.
On January 31, 2017, his luck ran out. Around the time that success of fund-raising for Sharkwater Extinction was announced, Rob was in Florida getting certified to use a new rebreather system at Add Helium, a dive operator in Fort Lauderdale, run by self-proclaimed rebreather guru Peter Sotis. Certification was not vetted by a generally recognized agency, but completely under the auspices of Add Helium.
According to Add Helium’s Facebook page, Rob completed Module 1 of the Add Helium rebreather course on August 3, 2016, and finished Module 2 on September 27, 2016. By January, he was working on Module 3. This indicates a very fast progression for rebreather certification — in fact, it could be claimed, too fast. The idea of using rebreather apparatus instead of conventional tanks was that there would be no bubbles generated to spook the sawfish, an endangered species that Rob was trying to film in the Florida Keys. The sawfish, also known as the carpenter shark, is a creature with the body of a shark and a beak that looks like a chainsaw. Its liver, bile and eggs are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine; its dorsal fins are also sold for high profits. Rob was being trained to use Trimix — a breathing gas composed of oxygen, helium and nitrogen. Mixing gases is potentially dangerous: if a diver were to accidentally breathe hypoxic gas at the surface, he could black out and sink.
On January 31st, Rob Stewart surfaced after a deep dive with Sotis, coming up from a depth of almost 70 meters — the third deep dive of the day. Apparently, both dived to retrieve a grappling hook that marked a buoy for the site. Why Rob Stewart should be sent down to retrieve a grappling hook is where the story becomes murky. That is a job better left to the crew. After this third dive, according to OutsideOnline.com, Sotis blacked out after surfacing and getting onto the dive-boat, the Pisces, and was given oxygen to revive. In the confusion of the moment, Stewart, still in the water, apparently disappeared from view.
There are a few things wrong with this narrative. Why did instructor Sotis embark on three 70-meter-deep dives in a single day in the first place — when even experienced tech divers would stop at two — with the second dive likely limited to 50 meters? That is reckless — if not downright dangerous. How is it possible that the rebreathing instructor, Peter Sotis — the most experienced with this equipment — blacked out when he surfaced? This would indicate that Rob Stewart probably suffered the same fate. And why would the attention be on instructor Peter Sotis? Surely the attention of the crew should have been on the client, Rob Stewart?
So many red flags pop up regarding Add Helium’s safety standards — or lack of them. Peter Sotis and Add Helium fell silent about the missing diver and the search for Rob Stewart. Peter Sotis later stated on the Add Helium Facebook page that he did not pass out: if that were true, then there would be no reason to attend to him first after the fateful dive. Worth noting: Sotis appears to have had second thoughts about this, and has deleted his own statement about not passing out from his own Add Helium Facebook page. The Add Helium narrative does not add up: Sotis’ lingering silence on what happened implicates him more and more in the tragedy. On February 5, the Add Helium Facebook page posted a brief paragraph about the death of Rob Stewart after he “mysteriously disappeared,” ending with this curious disclaimer: “Our staff is working with authorities to investigate this tragedy. Out of respect for Rob and his family we decline to provide any further details at this time.”
Was this really such a mystery if the instructor passed out? Clearly, the combination of a third deep dive and bad gas mix led to blackouts. Why no word from Peter Sotis, the key eye-witness, shedding light on what happened? Delving further, I found a curious post at an online forum, www.Scubaboard.com, from a Texas diver nicknamed Reefrat, who started an Add Helium rebreather course in November 2016, but abruptly dropped it due to perceived high danger levels. This diver talked about “the wealth of pseudo cutting-edge technical knowledge that was being imparted [at Add Helium] that was contrary to the general opinion regarding decompression theory and oxygen toxicity… there was a lot of back-patting and assurance that Add Helium and in particular Peter Sotis was an authority above and beyond the realms of the general rebreather and diving community.” After experiencing severe breathing problems on a deep dive, the diver decided to quit the course and sell his Add Helium rebreather equipment at a great loss.
Intrigued, I widened the search on www.Scubaboard.com and came across a thread warning the dive community about Chinese-made tanks of questionable standard, imported from Europe and sold by Add Helium, and quite possibly illegal. On this thread, Sotis is revealed as a convicted felon: he was involved in a jewellery heist in 1991. When captured, he had documentation for five different aliases he was using. Pleading guilty to involvement in the robbery, he was sentenced to nearly three years in jail. After getting out, he apparently turned his life around and built up Add Helium. However, on the Scubaboard forum, a person using the handle St John the Diver comments: “Yup. Peter turned his life around. Right up until he stared fudging the veritas of Chinese-made oxygen cylinders with faked CE papers, having a mirror-site in Europe that sells both rebreathers and Arabic headwear, and allegedly knowingly selling rebreathers and scooters to terrorists. Yeah, except for that he’s as clean as the new driven snow. Turned a new leaf. Absolutely a model citizen. Except for all of that.“
On March 28, 2017, Rob Stewart’s family filed a Wrongful Death lawsuit, naming Peter Sotis, Claudia Sotis and the crew on board the Pisces as grossly negligent in the death of their son. The Stewart family’s lawyer, Mr Haggard, added more intriguing details, quoted by the dive club Saltydogs.com. Haggard alleges that Sotis manipulated the computer on his rebreather equipment, allowing for longer dives. “Basically, he lied to the computer and put in new gas ratios,” Haggard said. “This means you can surface faster and spend more time in the water at greater depths.” Haggard says this could have been why Sotis collapsed after surfacing, and why Stewart experienced the same difficulties. They were both using the same gas mixture, and became hypoxic at the same time. On February 1, 2017, Peter Sotis was intercepted at Fort Lauderdale Airport on his way out of the country to Curacao for a deep-dive training expedition. If that date is correct, that is the day after Rob Stewart went missing, and two days before his body was found. Agents with the US Coast Guard Investigative Service met Peter Sotis at the airport and confiscated his rebreathers, according to Haggard, so that the equipment could be evaluated by the US Navy at the request of the Monroe County medical examiner. Even without that evidence, it is incredible that Peter Sotis would be carrying on as if nothing had happened to his celebrity diver trainee–departing the country for another trip, instead of participating in the search for Stewart.
Under the water, Rob was a different person. He was in his element. If he could grow gills, I am sure he would have spent all his time underwater. I went diving with Rob in Borneo during his early days of marine activism. We worked on dive and wildlife stories. We dived the island of Sipadan, and later Sangalaki. Both islands are extraordinary for their wealth of pristine coral and amazing diversity of species. Rob revelled in photographing all the majesty: from a swirling vortex of barracuda to an awesome oceanic manta cruising into a cleaning station–Darth Vader of the deep. But there was ugliness and injustice too. While turtles coming ashore at night to lay eggs were fully protected on our strip of Sangalaki, around the corner, poachers were collecting their eggs, destined to be sold illegally as a delicacy. One dive in Sangalaki was aborted when we were practically blown out of the water–blasted by nearby fishermen using explosives to kill fish.
Looking at Rob’s Instagram photos brought back memories from Borneo. In Sabah, palm-oil plantations threaten the habitat of the remarkable proboscis monkey. We went to investigate. At Kinabatangan Sanctuary, proboscis monkeys live in trees along a river. The distance over the canopy is too great to leap from tree to tree across the river. So one at a time, the entire troop would launch into space, belly-flop into the river, swim out and climb a tree again, moving quickly to avoid crocodiles. The last to make the perilous crossing was the harem’s dominant male. Filming these spectacular acrobatics, proboscis monkeys soared right over our small boat — and Rob got remarkable shots. Which got us into BBC Wildlife Magazine. Both Rob and our local guide in Sabah were into snakes, a passion I did not share. At one point, I found myself at the front of the boat staring at a green pit viper on a low-hanging branch: among the world’s deadliest snakes. “Don’t worry, it’s not in a striking position,” said Rob casually. That was Rob’s wry sense of humor. He loved snakes.
But his real passion was sharks. On a trip to the Galapagos chasing wildlife stories, I got an earful about sharks. Diving the Galapagos is where Rob’s marine activism really got under way. I didn’t know much about shark-finning then. By the time that trip was over, I was saturated with data about the injustice of shark-finning. Rob was a true ocean warrior—dedicated to stopping the senseless slaughter of sharks, taking on the Shark-fin Mafia. He was a champion for the cause. Never flinching from his quest, seizing every opportunity to press the case for shark conservation.
Remarkably, Rob pushed to have Sharkwater screened in Hong Kong, in Mandarin language — and then, in a major coup, arranged for the screening of Sharkwater on television in China. It took a long time and considerable effort to get the documentary screened there. Rob wanted to change minds in China, the real source of the shark-fin problem. He got high-profile Chinese basketball player Yao Ming involved in a campaign to end the eating of shark fin soup at banquets and in Chinese restaurants. He got Richard Branson on board for campaigning, got him to personally deliver messages of awareness. And Rob rejoiced as a host of countries banned shark finning in their waters. A number of airlines and couriers like DHL were persuaded to reject transportation of shark fin (not Fedex yet).
Rob was just 37 years old when he died. In his short life, he changed the way we view sharks — and the oceans. At the root of this is education about the important role of sharks in marine ecosystems. Rob’s fury and passion are found in his documentary Sharkwater. His message is more relevant than ever as shark species are going extinct. He wanted the world to watch this movie, and to heed its message before sharks disappear from our oceans. Forever.
Going forward, let’s hope his vision of educating the world about the important place of sharks in marine ecosystems is realized, and that Sharkwater Extinction, his 2018 documentary exposing facets of the global shark trade, gets wide exposure. And that the use of shark parts in billion-dollar industries — and the consumption of shark-fin soup — are banished in the cause of saving our oceans.
–Michael Buckley is author of a digital photobook, Ocean Blues, which is about the decimation of valuable marine species used in bogus Traditional Chinese Medicine practices. The photobook is available on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks platforms.