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Deep focus
Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival returns with national premieres
Greenpeace's Ocean Warrior attempts to repel shark fishing boats

ROB STEWART NEARLY gave his life to make his film, Sharkwater — not because he was attacked by sharks, but because of his encounters with humankind.

Stewart set out to make “a pretty film about sharks” and instead captured an intense, suspenseful, all-too-human drama. Sharkwater was awarded the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and also was given the award for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s U.S. premiere will be held Sept. 21 as part of the NOAA Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Film Festival. Stewart will speak about his film — which spanned 15 countries and took more than four years to make — at the screening.

Stewart’s fascination with sharks began at an early age with his first encounter while scuba diving in the Cayman Islands at the age of 8. He began photographing underwater at age 13 and became a certified scuba instructor trainer at 18.

Stewart earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Western Ontario He has studied marine biology and zoology at universities in Kenya and Jamaica.

From the start of his career, Stewart has worked to change the public’s perception of sharks. “One of the main points of the movie is to give the public a realistic view of sharks,” he says. “They’re not designed to eat human beings. When they realize they’ve made a mistake, they let go. Most people end up back on shore.”

As a wildlife photographer, Stewart accepted an assignment in the Galapagos Islands to film hammerhead sharks. “We found 60 sharks that were dead or dying,” he says.

The sharks were dying because of a practice known as shark finning. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in Asia, and the demand for it is on the rise.

“The shark adds no flavor to the dish, only texture,” says Stewart. “Once, it was available only to kings or royalty. But now that the middle class in Asia is experiencing trade with the rest of the world, the demand for shark-fin soup has gone up.

“The shark population has been decimated over the past 50 years,” Stewart says. “One hundred million die every year.”

Poachers cut off the sharks’ fins and dump the bodies overboard, wasting 95 percent of the animal. Many countries have outlawed shark finning, but because of the profit involved, it is carried out clandestinely.

Why save sharks? Because they’re vital to the Earth’s survival, Stewart says. Ocean species that have evolved over the last 40 million years have been shaped by their predators, the sharks.

That has given rise to schooling behavior, camouflage, speed, size and communication. Sharks have survived five major extinctions, but now face extinction themselves as they are being fished out.

“Sharks are being wiped out even in the most protected areas,” Stewart says. “I spent a year getting the word out about it, but found I had very little impact.”

Stewart set up a fund where people could donate money towards placing a patrol boat in the Galapagos Islands, but virtually no money was donated. He realized it was because of sharks’ reputations, so he set out to change people’s minds.

In April 2002, he teamed up with Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, also a co-founder of Greenpeace, for a four-month expedition to deter shark poaching in Costa Rica and Ecuador.

“That was my ticket to the most shark-rich waters in the world,” Stewart says. “We headed south for Costa Rica at the invitation of Costa Rica’s president.”

From the start, the crew of the Ocean Warrior hit nearly insurmountable obstacles. In Guatemalan waters, they battled shark poachers. At one point, the crew of a shark-fishing boat, the Varadero, in Guatemalan waters began chasing them — with guns.

“Our two boats collided,” Stewart says.

The poachers claimed the crew of the Ocean Warrior had deliberately rammed them, which resulted in the entire crew of 42 being charged with seven counts of attempted murder. Stewart later learned that the Taiwanese mafia owned the other boat and was behind the entire incident.

Rather than face arrest, the crew fled Costa Rica in an epic chase. They even wrapped barbed wire around the Ocean Warrior to prevent the coast guard from jumping onboard.

“We started filming ourselves to help ourselves,” Stewart says. “Our lawyer asked us, ‘What have you done?’”

They headed to the Galapagos Islands, where they had been invited to protect the marine reserve from illegal fishing. But Stewart’s journey was interrupted when he was diagnosed with flesh-eating disease, possibly from cuts on his feet.

After a doctor told him he could lose his leg and possibly his life, Stewart had no choice but to take a week off to recover. He snuck back into Costa Rica by car and continued filming.

By the time he returned home to finish editing his movie, Stewart was diagnosed with Dengue Fever, West Nile virus and tuberculosis — all at the same time.

“My immune system took a bit of a hit,” he says. “Now I’m fine.”

The experience was lengthy and intense, but Stewart says he’d do it all over again. “It forced me to grow as a human,” he says.

Sharkwater has garnered rave reviews, as well as awards. “It’s a really different film,” Stewart says. “It doesn’t run like normal films.”

Stewart hopes his film convinces young people to become involved in the fight to save the sharks.

“For the first time, young people have a way to enter the conservation movement,” he says.

“They get to save people and the planet by saving the sharks,” Stewart says. “They’ve help make conservation cooler.”

The Ocean Film Festival will be held Sept. 21, 22 and 23. This year, more than 30 ocean-themed films will be presented, including the U.S. premiere of Sharkwater and National Geographic’s Invasion of Jellyfish.

All films are free, although tickets are required, and most will be presented at Trustees Theater on Broughton Street. The films are chosen to inspire, entertain, educate and foster a spirit of ocean stewardship as they explore human’s relation to the sea, the coastlines and the estuarine environments and national marine sanctuaries.

On Friday and Saturday, guest speakers, including film directors and producers and experts, will answer questions from the audience. When it debuted four years ago, The Ocean Film Festival was the first ocean-themed film festival on the East Coast.

Savannah’s own shark expert

Matthew R. Gilligan was younger than Stewart when he had his first shark encounter.

“When I was 6 to 8 years old, I went fishing with my dad,” Gilligan says. “We went out to Long Island Sound with a man in his boat. It was the first time I’d ever been on the ocean. I had a big rod and reel and I got a monster on my line. It was just a small shark.”

Today, Gilligan thinks the shark must have been an Atlantic Sharp Nose shark, one of the most abundant species. “They don’t get very big,” he says. “And they’re not very dangerous at all.”

However, the man driving the boat had a big reaction to the small shark. “I was just astounded that I got something so big for me,” Gilligan says.

“But the man took a billy club and killed it. He said the only good shark was a dead shark. I was so impressed by his knowing all about operating the boat and all about the ocean, that I decided I wanted to be a shark fisherman.”

Now Gilligan has a totally different view of the experience. “I learned that man was a stupid, ignorant fisherman,” he says. “What he did was entirely inappropriate. There is no need to be killing sharks.”

Today, Gilligan is a professor and the coordinator of marine sciences at Savannah State University. In the 1980s, he made more than 80 dives at what is now called Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary to develop a field guide of fishes of Gray’s Reef.

He also in a way realized his dream of becoming a “shark fisherman.” He will be at the Ocean Film Festival to answer people’s questions about sharks.

“Sharks have received a bum rap in terms of the dangers they pose to people in the water,” Gilligan says. “It’s profiling in the worst possible way.”

There are 350 species of shark known to inhabit the Georgia shelf water. Even white sharks, incorrectly but popularly known as great whites, have been seen and photographed off the coast.

“Humans and large prey are not their prey,” Gilligan says, though he admits sharks do bite people on occasion. “We had one incident on Tybee where someone was bitten. Chances are it was a case of mistaken identity. Georgia’s waters are so murky.”

Killing sharks indiscriminately causes more problems than it solves, Gilligan says. “As you take the largest and oldest individuals out of the population, the smaller species tend to become even more abundant,” he says.

Gilligan often gives a popular presentation titled The Venerable Shark. In it, he outlines the seven most common misconceptions about sharks.

Number one, that they like to eat people. “When offered blood from different species, they preferred fish blood to human blood,” Gilligan says. “Humans are not normal prey for any species we know of.”

Two, sharks are just feeding machines. “Sharks have much more complex behavior,” Gilligan says. “They turn off their feeding behavior entirely when they’re migrating. That’s why filmmakers are able to film entire schools of hammerhead sharks when they’re migrating.”

Three, sharks have poor vision. “They’re more like mammals than other fish when it comes to vision,” Gilligan says. “They have a moveable lens in their eyes, and they see colors.”

Four, sharks are unimportant in the ecosystem. “Throughout their history, sharks have been among the top predators in the ocean,” Gilligan says. “They’re keystone predators. They keep the prey population in check.”

Five, sharks are hard to kill. “People get that from Jaws,” Gilligan says. “Sharks actually are very hard to keep alive. We don’t try to keep them alive in captivity because they don’t get along in an captive environment.”

Six, sharks must swim constantly to stay alive. “There are a number of species that sit on the bottom,” Gilligan says. “They do have to keep swimming to keep from sinking because they have no glass bladder or air bladder as other fish do.”

Seven, sharks are found only in the ocean. “Sharks enter fresh-water estuaries and some species of sharks spend their lives in fresh water,” Gilligan says.

Gilligan hopes to change the public’s perception of sharks. “They’re pretty neat animals,” he says. “Almost all of western culture associates sharks with mindless and unprovoked feeding frenzies and attacks.

“Look up ‘shark’ in the dictionary. It says ‘swindler, cheat, fraud, parasite and lawyer.’ People fear and loathe them.

“But sharks need to be venerated because of their age and survivorship,” Gilligan says. “They’re helpful to the marine ecosystem. We venerate eagles, but they’re nothing but bloodthirsty killers.”

A tale of terror from the deep

While mankind has been held responsible for the decimation of desirable ocean species, it also can be blamed for causing the increase of one of the most undesirable ocean species — the jellyfish.

Andy Mitchell has worked at the National Geographic’s Television & Film’s Natural History Unit as a producer, editor, cameraman and soundman. With Ernie Kovacs, he created a film called Jellyfish Invasion, which will be presented Saturday at the Ocean Film Festival.

However, don’t expect Mitchell to show at the festival — he just became a new father to his son, Jake. “He arrived two weeks late,” Mitchell says. “That’s going to keep me away from the festival.”

In Mitchell’s place, his boss, Keenan Smart, will answer questions. What Mitchell captured on film reads something like a horror film. Jellyfish aren’t nice creatures.

“The bulk of the filming was done in Hawaii, Japan and Australia,” Mitchell says. “Australia is home to the really nasty ones. Ninety percent of the kinds of jellyfish that can kill humans are box jellyfish.”

There are 26 to 40 species of box jellyfish, some which grow to the size of basketballs. There’ve been only 70 people killed by them since records have been kept, but some don’t find that statistic very reassuring.

“They come every summer, which in Australia, is November through May,” Mitchell says. “Hundreds and hundreds of miles of the most beautiful beaches you’ve ever seen are empty because of the box jellyfish.”

Unlike other jellyfish, box jellyfish have eyes. “They can see and hunt fish,” Mitchell says. “They can distinguish between colors. They can maneuver between poles.”

The box jellyfish was once believed to exist only in Australia, but in recent years has been tracked as far away as Hawaii and, shudder, Florida. “It’s less likely they’re spreading, we just realize they’re there now,” Mitchell says reassuringly.

Even scarier is the Irunkanji jellyfish. “It is tiny, tiny, nearly invisible,” Mitchell says. “Their sting is said to be almost unbearably painful, and it is accompanied by an impending sense of doom. Yet because it’s microscopic, you don’t see it.”

As creepy as that is, the Nomura’s jellyfish in Japan can grow to 6 feet wide and 450 pounds. “It’s as big as a sumo wrestler,” Mitchell says.

Still not scared? Consider this. “The more humans pollute, the more jellyfish thrive,” Mitchell says.

Jellyfish reproduce through polyps, which can lie dormant as long as 20, 30 or 40 years. “Nothing can kill polyps,” Mitchell says. “Cues cause the polyps to bloom. The rise of the temperature of the oceans because of global warming is causing mass quantities of jellyfish to bloom.”

On one expedition, Mitchell watched as fishermen pulled up nets that once would have held fish. Instead, they’re now filled with jellyfish. “Where the fish are gone, jellyfish fill the void,” he says. “Once they take over an area, it’s virtually impossible for the indigenous fish to come back.”

But scientists are finding killing jellyfish is just about the worst thing they can do. “When they’re traumatized, they inject their eggs and sperm into the water,” Mitchell says. “The more they kill, the more they reproduce. And the fishermen are killing them by the tens of thousands.”

The NOAA Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Film Festival will be held Sept. 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. and Sept. 23 at 4 p.m. Most of the films will be shown at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St. Admission is free, but tickets are required. For tickets, call 525-5050. For the full list of films and screening times, visit or