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The Best Book of Sharks
by Claire Llewellyn
(Low-cost Paperback from Amazon)
. "Sharkwater"

While it's true that documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart, out of Toronto, Canada, comes on with an onslaught of zeal over his legendary subject, sharks, it's also true that he proves he's no "Grizzly Man" taking up with bears in the wild. His is a more scientifically and experiential agenda which he amply proves with his embrace of his subjects and by his bare skin free-dives among the fearsome critters who prowl the warm waters of Central America.

Happily, that's only part of where he's going with this. The major part of it lies in his partnership with renegade conservationist Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society who supplies the boat with which to track down poachers off the coast of Costa Rica and he makes a pretty fascinating story out of it, with a storyteller's gift for real-life drama.

Imagine being on a boat, entering the marine reserve waters of a conservation-treaty nation, and encountering a load of poachers using long lines to capture sharks, cutting off their fins and throwing the carcasses back -- in flagrant disregard of international treaty and reserve protection.

Well this native work crew haven't met the likes of Stewart, Watson & Co. and they're astonished when they're asked to stop what they're doing, have their long lines cut when they refuse, are attacked with water cannon and then forced by a boatload of gringos to be towed back to shore.

By this time, the cooperation is a ruse. What Stewart and Watson don't realize but learn in time, however, is that the poachers have called the local police who are heading out to arrest the conservationists for intruding upon their vital industry and livelihoods, not realizing how the industry payoffs to the politicians have turned legality on its head. Now knowing that they've lost this war and not wanting to get the boat impounded, they cut loose from the fishing rig they've got on their towline, and wisely head for Guatemala.

However, no justice awaits them there, either. They're hauled in at the port and taken to police headquarters, confined to house arrest, sneak out quietly one fine day, and open the doors to a secretive set of factories processing shark fins behind concrete walls. The fins are everywhere, including laid out on the tops of trucks, drying out.

Diving Southern California
The reviewer has a special interest in this subject, having been a certified diving instructor for L.A. County for many years (now retired). My primary exposure to sharks in the water during dives took place in the waters off Southern California in such places as Malibu, Anacapa and the Catalina Channel. The "Catalina Blue" is not any more dangerous than the ones Stewart shows us in his film, being as curious as all the other fish. Still, the presence of one that's near enough to see is enough to raise the hackles of fear until they go on their way and I, more than once, have had to drift slowly back to the boat. The Great White, on the other hand, is not one any diver wants an encounter with. The known human kills up and down the California coastline have to do with these bulls of the ocean. When they take a little munch, just to find out if you're a delicacy like a seal, is quite devastating enough to do you in.
Armed now with this new knowledge of what a paradise for poachers these nations have become, and the realities of challenging a major source of industry and income for an otherwise poor third world country enjoying wealth like countries that profit from the cultivation of drug crops, they escape to the boat. They head out at top speed, but it isn't long before a police speed boat with three officers armed with automatic rifles pull up alongside shouting for them to stop and turn around. But Watson, the renegade captain, knowing that's not the road to take and certain his boat won't be fired upon, gets past the sea boundary line and makes off scot free with all aboard.

Heady dramatic stuff, which Stewart enhances with good editorial work that integrates a pretty full plate of detail concerning the slowly disintegrating population of sharks with the fine dining places of Japan. He makes a moving and convincing case for one of the most efficient creatures on the planet that comes down to this age unchanged from prehistoric times. A creature now being decimated for the enjoyment of citizens and connoisseurs who believe, wrongly, that the tasteless fibers of the shark fin, mixed into deliciously prepared soup, will invest them with the strength and power of the animal they fear and feel no mercy for.

In many ways, taking his creature-advocacy role alongside the likes of Jacques Cousteau and sons, Stewart proves himself a sharply talented film journalist for a cause, if a bit more self-focused than perfect discipline would allow. He puts it all together quite well, stunning views of the underwater world shot in high definition video, excellent music and pro presentation.

He may have had to pad his documentary out a bit for feature length consumption because it seems to come to an end more than once, but the underwater journey is one only the most privileged and/or intrepid divers have familiarity with. Of course, few of them have such a fierce regard and love for the animal slowly disappearing from the top of the oceanic food chain as the result of greed and corruption. And so, the most fearsome animal and the most bad-repped, the one with all them sharp teeth, the shark... may be swimming toward extinction. And, with it, the delicate balance of a global eco-system.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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