Rob Stewart, the charismatic Canadian filmmaker and conservationist behind “Sharkwater,” died tragically in a diving accident in the Florida Keys in 2017. But what really happened that day? When I heard that Stewart had drowned, my first thought was that the media had gotten the story wrong. Stewart was an experienced technical diver, and the reports just didn’t seem to add up. To that end, I’ve spent the last year researching my new documentary, “The Third Dive.”
It will premiere on “CBC Docs POV” on October 26th.
The first reports about the accident
Within days of Stewart’s death, some media reported that he died because a self-serving, Svengali-like instructor named Peter Sotis urged him to perform a dangerous — and ultimately fatal — dive. According to reports, Sotis convinced Stewart to conduct a series of dives that were too deep for his skill level. On the final dive, he came up too fast, paying the ultimate price. Some media also suggested that Sotis survived the dive by clawing his way onto the boat first, leaving Stewart to drown when he passed out in the water.
The world lost an important figure in the fight to prevent shark extinction. But Stewart was a hugely experienced diver. By one estimate he may have topped the 10,000-dive mark. He was also a certified instructor and had used rebreathers before when filming of “Sharkwater.” So it just didn’t make sense that a diver with his credentials would blindly follow what another diver said without question.
Talking to the Keys’ medical examiner
Stewart’s parents hold Sotis and the dive operation, Horizon Divers, responsible for their son’s death, and their lawyers consequently filed a negligence lawsuit. But when I began scratching beneath the surface, parts of the accepted storyline fell apart. Dr. Thomas Beaver, the Keys’ medical examiner, told me he knew the case would be high-profile from the beginning and wanted everything done by the proverbial book, yet from the outset, he ran into considerable opposition.
“They threw Rob Stewart under the bus from the beginning,” he says. “They tried to tell me that Rob Stewart panicked and shot to the surface and that’s how he died.”
Beaver says he was excluded from the search for the body (though Florida law places that task under the M.E.’s jurisdiction) and also discovered anomalies in the chain of evidence that suggested Rob’s body might have been tampered with when it was recovered. Yet when he complained to the local sheriff, he says he was ignored.
Regardless, Beaver continued to push hard for answers. His determination has cost him dearly. He found himself vilified by the small, close community in the Keys. Despite the opposition, Beaver has painstakingly reconstructed the forensic evidence. Slowly he began to understand what occurred, which wasn’t necessarily what the world has been told to this point.
Talking to Peter Sotis
I also spoke with Peter Sotis, the last person to dive with Rob Stewart. He had a very different story to tell when I finally tracked him down, suggesting that he’s been set up as the perfect fall guy. “It’s easy to blame me, but it doesn’t mean it’s true,” he says.
Sotis is right about that. He’s confident and a little self-important. He likes to brag that his dive school is the best in the world. All reasons he says he’s an easy target, but he claims that all he was trying to do was help Stewart get the best film possible for “Sharkwater Extinction.”
He says that when Stewart asked him for his support, he saw an opportunity: he could help Stewart and at the same time get some publicity for his company. When it came time to film, Sotis volunteered to act as their safety diver.
Digging for answers
After talking with Beaver and Sotis and dozens of other people involved in the accident, I realized that what really happened on the day Stewart died and in the few days following was a much more complicated and disturbing narrative than the one that’s gained popular traction. The real narrative involves the ruined life of the medical examiner who tried to get to the bottom of the story; allegations of tampering with evidence by the people with the most to lose in a lawsuit; an incestuously closed community that tried to blame the victim; and a grieving family that may not be ready to hear about their son and the risks he took to get the footage he needed for his film. We can sum up what happened that day with one quote from Dr. Beaver, “There’s a lot of blame to go around, a lot of blame.”
The CBC will broadcast the documentary in Canada on October 26th on CBC Docs POV at 9 p.m. A U.S. broadcast is currently being negotiated and should be available shortly afterwards.