Sharks. Are they violent, man-eating predators or majestic, underwater creatures in desperate need of protection? This polarising question is at the heart of the new documentary from the late, award winning director and marine conservationist, Rob Stewart.

It is easy to consider this animal as nature’s natural villain; the fish equivalent of Hannibal Lecter or Hans Gruber found in popular culture. Stories of devastating attacks on swimmers dominate the headlines of our media channels each year. This depiction of the ‘monster’ from the sea is reinforced by influential horror movies such as Open WaterSharknado and even Disney’s Finding Nemo.

The opening, ominous notes from the Jaws soundtrack are enough to send even the bravest of souls cowering from open water. Tackling this deeply ingrained public misconception is the backbone of Sharkwater Extinction, a shockingly brutal exposé on the impact that we, as humans, are having on one of the most important animals in our ocean’s ecosystem.

A follow up to the 2006 Sharkwater, Sharkwater Extinction highlights how, through actions such as overfishing, hunting for sport and shark finning, we have decimated this animals population. Staggeringly, the total number of sharks has decreased by at least 90% over the last 30 years and what makes it worse are the methods responsible for this demise.

In particular, the demand for shark fin soup, a traditional Asian dish, has meant that trade in fins has become a lucrative and extremely profitable business on the black market. Shark finning itself is a ruthless practice. The fins are sliced off the animal (usually alive) and the mutilated body is then thrown back into the water to die a painful death at the bottom of the seabed.

In protest against this display of animal cruelty, the film skilfully weaves together clips of underwater videography and incriminating raw footage to bring these practices to light. Stewart and his team have collected material from cities all over the world and the list is undoubtedly meant to name and shame.

Rob Stewart in Sharkwater Extinction

The late, great Rob Stewart in Sharkwater Extinction  Credit: Sharkwater Extinction

The cinematography deserves due credit as well. With its mix of shaky, undercover shots caught thrillingly with hidden cameras and breath-taking underwater expanses that would not be out of place on Blue Planet, they effectively convey that we are wiping out a species that had, up to this point, survived on our planet for over 400 million years before our intervention. Ultimately, the consequences could be catastrophic for our oceans.

The film is extremely powerful at hammering home this message, yet it falls down slightly in finding its narrative. Tragically, Stewart passed away in a terrible diving accident towards the end of filming.  The event clearly influenced a shift in the aim of the documentary to something that tries to serve a dual purpose.

Firstly, it acts as a call to action for people and governments to acknowledge a distressing conservation issue that so far seems to have slipped largely under the radar. It also serves as a moving homage, dedicated to an inspirational figure who fought his entire life to instigate change. Despite the extremely worthy effort, the story can, therefore, feel a little disjointed as it attempts to merge serious footage with more personal videos of Stewart undertaking what he loved.

In the very first scene, we focus on a diver swimming through crystal blue water and surrounded by sharks; a relationship between human and beast that seems harmonious and peaceful. What follows is an exploration of how this image is extremely far from the truth.

It is hard not to come out of watching this documentary with a heavy heart and a general sense of foreboding. However, it absolutely achieves its original goal. Not only do you leave with genuine compassion for these clearly misbranded and misunderstood animals, but it also sparks a recognition that we could, and should, be doing more to protect the wonderful, fragile world we live in.