Rob’s story is so inspiring: as a young boy, he was always fascinated by sharks; their mystery, their danger, the way we’re taught to fear their power and ability to kill a man with one single bite. But when Rob swam with sharks for the first time, he realised that they weren’t the brutish, uncalculated beasts he’d been led to believe. They were, in fact, exceptionally clever and in terms of evolution, their senses and abilities are far superior to many creatures on land and in the water, including human beings.
Rob has worked around the world as an environmental activist, wildlife photographer and most recently as a documentary filmmaker, producing the documentary, Sharkwater, which has led to shark fin bans around the globe.
Rob lives in Toronto and during one of our Random House conferences, I was lucky enough to meet him. He is the type of guy that you cannot help being drawn to, he is incredibly charismatic, passionate and determined. His love for his work drips from his every word.
In his new book, Rob travels the world to meet the visionaries, entrepreneurs, scientists and children working to solve our environmental crises. In Save the Humans, his message is clear, the revolution has begun and all that’s missing is you!
I wanted to include the introduction from Save the Humans so that you can see how important the work that Rob does is and how you too can get behind this revolution and make a real difference. It’s definitely worth a read!
The Revolution to Save Humanity
As a kid, when I wasn’t outside catching frogs, snakes, fish and lizards, I spent a lot of time imagining the animals I might eventually encounter, and even more time fantasizing about the things I wished I could have as pets. Ideally, I wanted a dragon. Thirty-five to seventy-five feet long, covered in impenetrable scales, capable of breathing white-hot streams of fire, tame for no one but me, badass as hell—as a dragon obviously would be. Hours spent dreaming about what it would be like didn’t get me any closer to owning one. A dinosaur would have been almost as cool but despite the fact they’d once walked the earth, the relative availability of a T. Rex or velociraptor was about equal to that of a dragon. When it came to real animals, the closest I could get in all of my imaginings to hunting alongside a dinosaur or riding on the back of a dragon was swimming with sharks.
When I was a kid, people knew very little about sharks. I read book after book and learned all the facts I could: approximate sizes of the different kinds of sharks, what experts thought they ate and where certain species could occasionally be found. The experts got most of their information from yanking sharks onto shore and studying their anatomy. But even the experts didn’t know where sharks spent most of the year, how long they lived or where they mated.
The mystery that surrounded much of their lives leant itself to daydreaming—the details were mine to shade in. But the basic facts were irrefutable: like dragons, sharks were unbeatable predators, and like dinosaurs they ruled an entire world. It was an underworld we couldn’t see and didn’t understand, and they ruled it so well they terrified people. Friends, relatives, teachers and television all preached that we needed to fear the ocean because there were these creatures in it that got to decide what lived and died and they would rip any trespassers to pieces. The fact that everyone was afraid of sharks made them seem cooler to me. The cute and cuddly already had advocates and aficionados. Everybody loved pandas, elephants and tigers. They were spoken for. I gravitated towards anything weird, different or dark. From the moment I knew sharks existed, I loved them.
As I got older and my knowledge of sharks deepened, my fascination with them did as well. Sharks were the first creatures on the planet to develop jaws, more than 400 million years ago. People call them primitive eating machines, but there’s nothing primitive about them. Sharks have two more senses than human beings. Like all fish, they have a lateral line that runs along their bodies and allows them to form a sensory impression of all of the movement that occurs around them: a full 360-degree picture or feeling or some kind of sense of their environment at all times. More amazing is sharks’ ability to detect electromagnetic fields. At first, I didn’t know what an electromagnetic field was or what it meant that sharks could sense one, but it was clear to me that nothing could compete since nothing perceives the world the way sharks do. When I finally understood what that meant, my respect grew. Everything we perceive as matter—trees, ice cream, mountains—is actually energy, moving at a speed and arranged in such a way that makes it a tree or an ice cream cone or a mountain. That’s an idea that most of us can only grasp abstractly, but sharks feel it. They can feel the energy emitted by every living thing on the planet (and some dead things too).
How can an animal like that exist? An animal with two entire senses we can’t even imagine; an animal that can keep replacing its teeth if they get broken or lost throughout its life, and that can birth genetic clones of itself in hard times. The level of sophistication is mind-blowing. Even individual shark scales are made of tiny little teeth called dermal denticles. As a shark passes through the water, each denticle creates a tiny vortex. Taken as a whole, all of these vortices create a slipstream around the shark’s body, allowing it to move through the water with less friction than any other animal. They are the most hydrodynamic things the planet has ever seen.
Sharks evolved a form and a function that has seen them survive five major extinctions that wiped most life from the planet. Pretty much everything else has changed. Dinosaurs became birds and uncountable numbers of species have come and gone. Through it all, sharks have moved beneath the surface of the oceans, ruling the most important ecosystem on the planet. They’ve shaped the evolution of life in the oceans and, just like that, they’ve shaped all of life on earth.
For an animal born into a world of sharks to survive, it had to be shark-tested—its appearance, defence mechanisms, feeding habits, mating behaviours. As the top predator in the oceans, sharks drove evolution. Schooling behaviours, communication, camouflage and mimicry, poison—I think a lot of these things were adaptations to avoid sharks. Their rule of the oceans was challenged only briefly by ocean-going reptiles who were unfit to survive the mass extinctions. Ever since I first saw a picture of a shark, I’ve believed they are the most perfect animals on the planet.
And then, when I was about nine years old, I met one.
Under water, even the best free divers seem clumsy and ridiculously out of place, and then you see a shark—the thing you’ve been taught your whole life is going to rip you to shreds. You freeze. Its power is unbelievable. It swims without seeming to move any part of its body, barely using its tail for propulsion. It’s so beautiful you forget to feel afraid. It makes eye contact. Its eyes are just like yours, big and round and open, and you watch it scanning you, figuring out what you are. It’s like an alien, sensing you with two faculties you know nothing about, but there’s something so familiar about it, too, as it contemplates you and considers its next move. Then its tail springs to life—one hard swoop and it’s gone. Without its overpowering presence, your awe starts to dissipate and you realize It didn’t eat me…I don’t have to be afraid anymore!
That first experience changed everything for me. It showed me that sharks weren’t menacing predators of people and that our fear of them might be unjustified, manufactured out of a few stories of attacks and passed along to keep us from swimming out too far. After I saw that shark, I started to wonder what other beautiful things there were in the world that I was missing out on because someone had persuaded me they sucked or taught me to fear them.
Sharks are awesome. I grew up studying sharks, zoology and evolution with a sense of awe, and then, when I became a wildlife photographer in my late teens and early twenties, I uncovered something horrible. Because of us, and our attitude to them, in the last three decades we’ve lost more than 90 percent of the world’s sharks.
We’re losing sharks to legal and illegal fishing and unsustainable fishing practices; we’re losing them as bycatch, the accidental victims of “targeted” fishing for other species; we’re losing them to pollution, particularly to the accumulation of heavy metals and plastic products in our oceans; we’re losing them to recreational fishing; and we’re losing them as climate change and carbon emissions raise the temperature and acidity of the oceans, blanching reefs and destroying marine habitats.
The counterpoint to my first awe-filled encounter with a shark was the first time I witnessed the horror and destruction caused to sharks by illegal longlining. Longlining is a method of mass fishing in which a boat lays out a single high-tensile line up to 60 kilometres long with as many as sixteen thousand baited hooks hanging from it. The catch it yields is indiscriminate and can include a variety of large fish, sea birds and turtles. Sharks unfortunate enough to get hooked are often dragged onto a fishing boat still alive and struggling. On deck, their fins are cut off and they are thrown back overboard still writhing, to sink and suffocate in the ocean.
After first seeing finning in the waters around the Galapagos Islands, I knew I had to do something to save sharks. I first tried to use my pictures to educate the public and encourage donations toward a patrol boat in the Galapagos Islands. After a year of championing the plight of sharks, I’d raised $1,300 in donations. A pitiful and disheartening number that made me realize I needed to change my approach, and instead attempt to show people why I loved these creatures so that they would become as outraged as I was. In 2002, at the age of 22, I teamed up with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a “radical” marine wildlife conservation organization, and set sail to Central and South America to make a movie about sharks. Along the way I helped battle illegal fishing boats, ran from the Taiwanese mafia and the Costa Rican authorities, dove in the most shark-filled waters on earth and almost lost my life twice. Sharkwater, the documentary feature I shot during that trip, had its North American theatrical release in 2007 and went on to receive thirty-five international awards, inspire more than a dozen conservation groups and change government policy around the world. When the film was released, only sixteen countries had active bans on shark finning. Today, that number is more than ninety and still climbing. The success of both the film and the advocacy work it sparked taught me a valuable lesson: People want to do good, but they need to be informed in order to do it. When they watched Sharkwater it was as if they were witnessing some of the atrocities committed against sharks firsthand. People were more than capable of taking it from there.
The threats to shark populations that I focused on in the film are the result of the multi-billion-dollar global shark fin industry. Shark fin is an ingredient in shark fin soup, used for texture and prestige, not flavour. In parts of Asia, it is also ground into powder for use in assorted pills, supplements and tonics. Shark cartilage is mistakenly thought to have curative powers— particularly for cancer patients—because sharks are resistant to certain parasites.
As daunting as it seemed, I knew early on that I had to find a way to get Sharkwater released in China, the country that is by far the biggest consumer of shark fin. It was also the country where Sharkwater had the greatest potential for good. If audiences there could see it, they could launch a significant attack against shark finning and make a serious dent in the practices that are killing sharks.
It took three years of effort but with the help of the conservation groups Wildaid, EcoVision Asia and the Bharti Charitable Foundation, in April 2010 I finally found myself boarding a plane to attend the film’s Hong Kong premiere. EcoVision had negotiated a month-long engagement with a chain of IMAX theatres and had arranged for Lisa S., a popular Hong Kong-based model and actress, to attend the premiere, which was being held at a theatre on the seventh floor of a giant mall in downtown Hong Kong.
Walking out of the elevator, I was blown away by how many people had come out. We had been expecting some representatives of the Hong Kong press, but reporters had come over from mainland China as well. My handlers found and introduced me to Lisa S. and then set about assembling an impromptu press conference in the theatre lobby. As reporters crowded around Lisa and me, all I could think to myself was, wow, people really care about sharks!
Lisa and I were each handed as many microphones as we could hold. Each one bore a logo, cut out of cardboard and attached to its handle, declaring its station affiliation with candy-coloured anime enthusiasm. I ended up with both hands full. Then the questions started.
“Lisa, when will you be getting married?”
“Lisa, Lisa, where is your husband today?”
“Lisa, how was your vacation?”
“Lisa, are you thinking about having kids soon?”
Lisa S., it turned out, was the hottest thing going. Born in America, she had moved to Hong Kong to model and ended up marrying Daniel Wu, one of China’s biggest movie stars. They are Hong Kong’s version of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. As the press conference progressed I made myself useful by holding all my microphones in front of her. None of the media there gave a shit about the movie or me. Lisa kept saying, “And this is Rob Stewart. He made a documentary called Sharkwater.” But only a few of the reporters were interested.
Then Lisa S. took off to meet her husband, and the film played for the first time in China. The IMAX theatre was full, with around 750 people watching Sharkwater on the biggest screen it had ever played on. When it was over, I got up on a small stage for a Q&A session with the audience; I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out the people who had turned out were concerned and connected, and had been drawn to the screening by our press and publicity over the preceding weeks. A few questions in, a young woman raised her hand. Audibly nervous, she began by citing a UN report based on a study from Dalhousie University in Halifax that predicted the collapse of every fishery on the planet by 2048. “What’s the point in stopping finning,” she asked, “if the sharks—if all the fish—will be gone anyway?”
Her question stopped me dead. I had to think for a moment about how to even reply. “I think it’s going to take public pressure,” I finally answered. “It’s going to take people mounting up against these atrocities to turn anything around. Yeah, every fish could be gone by the year 2048 if we continue business as usual. But if you tell your friends what’s going on, if you talk about this and make it an important issue for yourself, your family and your friends, then everything can be turned around.” She nodded, seemingly satisfied, and handed off the microphone.
The trouble was that I wasn’t convinced. Sharkwater was the embodiment of my desire to do something to save the animal I love the most. It represented almost ten years of my life and making it had taken more from me than I thought was there to give in the first place. I believed it was the absolute pinnacle of what I was capable of at the time, and in the years since it had first been released, it’d seemed like it might be enough. But there was nothing in Sharkwater that could answer her question in any way that satisfied me.
Were we really headed for a future with no fish? Part of me already knew we were and accepted the UN report as further evidence. If Sharkwater wasn’t enough, what could I do to save sharks? If saving sharks wasn’t enough, what could I do to save the oceans? I couldn’t get that question out of my head for weeks after I left Hong Kong. Eventually, I just embraced it and let the pursuit of an answer push me farther in my thinking about conservation, humanity and the world than I ever thought I could go.
We are currently facing the greatest challenge ever put before humanity. Carbon emissions, deforestation, ocean acidification, climate change, soil erosion, desertification, mass extinctions, pollution, overpopulation, food scarcity—these are just some of the problems we haven’t come close to adequately addressing. Scientists estimate that at our current western levels of global resource consumption, we would need six earths to sustain us. If trends continue, by 2048, when every single fishery and most of the rainforest is predicted to be gone, there will be nine billion people on the planet. Forty to fifty percent will not have access to enough safe drinking water, and twenty percent won’t have enough food. Affordable oil and energy will be a thing of the past and millions will have been displaced by rising sea levels, desertification and agricultural failure. The environmental movement is no longer about hugging trees and saving pandas; it’s a fight for basic human survival.
We have to save the humans. That’s the goal that has been absorbing me since the Hong Kong premiere of Sharkwater, both in the pages of this book and in the new documentary feature I’ve been shooting, which I’m calling REvolution. Whenever people ask me what my next project is about, I tell them it’s about how humans are going to survive the next hundred years. The two most common responses I get? “We’re not going to” and “Yeah right, good luck.”
Everyone seems to know that we’re in deep, deep trouble, but very few of us are doing anything about it. Instead of taking matters into our own hands, we’re gambling on the hope that someone will invent a solution to all of these problems. That’s not a bet we should be staking the human race and the entire natural world on. We have far too much to lose.
My hope for this book is that it will persuade you of two things. The first is that we can’t put off our responsibility to the planet any longer. The science is clear on that point. It screams, “DO SOMETHING.”
The second is that to have any chance of a future we need all hands on deck. Instead of banking on a select few scientific minds, governments and non-governmental organizations to save us, we need united communities and every brain on earth pumping at full capacity to come up with answers, inventions and initiatives.
That’s the real point. That’s the point of stopping shark finning, the point of recycling, the point of lobbying for measures to reduce carbon emissions, the point of every single action we take to help the environment. The crises confronting us are so big, interconnected and intimidating, each of us must find an issue we care passionately about and simply attack it. Considered as individual efforts, such a scattershot approach may seem insignificant, but taken together I believe it’s our best hope for survival and evolution as a species.
The fight is not going to be an easy one, but as I hope to prove in the first parts of this book—which tell the story of how I became an environmental activist—the place to be isn’t on the couch. We need to be out on the front lines.
The plus side? Fighting for something greater than ourselves will call out our greatest heroes; it has the potential to unite humanity to a degree never before seen in our history. It will also give our ailing societies a purpose other than consumption and push us toward the next step in human evolution. In a way, I think this crisis is exactly what we need right now.
If my own experience is anything to go on, I bet you will find it fun to join the fight. Trying to save sharks has taken me all over the world on crazy adventures with amazing people. Activism has given me the kind of life I dreamed of as a little kid, a life that’s never boring, a life of total engagement. And the same fun, the same adventure, the same sorts of challenges, the same purpose? They’re all sitting there waiting for you.
There is no better feeling than waking up in the morning knowing that you’re going to battle to save something you love, and that there are awesome people out there working hard, too, to help you do it.
The revolution to save humanity has already begun. All that’s missing is you.