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The legacy of Canadian filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart

Director Rob Stewart, seen at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, became known for his acclaimed 2006 documentary Sharkwater, an underwater illumination about misunderstood creature.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

On first appearance, the funeral for the Canadian conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart last weekend was like most others, albeit one with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne in attendance, and the guest book for mourners not a traditional bound copy of remembrances but Stewart's own Save the Humans, an autobiography and manifesto.

But what was most unusual about the service – a gracefully uplifting event – was the forward momentum of its message. Never has the Mary Elizabeth Frye poem Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep been so insistent; rarely has a funeral seemed like such a starting point. According to those who knew him well, Stewart wouldn't have it any other way.

"With Rob," media personality George Stroumboulopoulos said afterward, "it was all about purpose."

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Related: Filmmaker Rob Stewart devoted his life to environmental causes

Read more: Toronto filmmaker Rob Stewart was an aquatic guardian angel for the "demons" of the deep

During the funeral, Stewart's "Fat Wednesday" parties in his California cabin were brought up. These were high-life feasts that sometimes involved costumes and that often extended into Thursdays, but, according to Stroumboulopoulos, were breaks in the action rather than the point of anything. "The parties were fun and in the moment, but Rob was a big-picture guy," he said. "There was work to be done. There still is."

Stewart, a Toronto-born free spirit in love with the universe, was known for his acclaimed 2006 documentary, Sharkwater, an underwater illumination about a creature we've been unnecessarily groomed to fear. He died recently in a diving mishap off the Florida Keys, where he was filming Sharkwater Extinction, a sequel.

He was 37 years old.

Sharkwater, which will be screened across the country Feb. 25 at selected Cineplex cinemas in support of WWF-Canada, shows Stewart hugging a shark. It's an allegory for his cause and a symbol of his allure – sharks and everyone from Richard Branson to Leonardo DiCaprio were drawn to the boyish, otherworldly man whose optimism was intoxicating.

"He had a magnetism that was unparalleled," said Brock Cahill, a close friend of Stewart's. "Sharks are able to sense electromagnetic energy. They can read your mood and your energy from miles away, and they were, like all animals, drawn to Robbie. He was so welcoming and excited to see the sharks that they would reciprocate, and it was a beautiful thing to watch."

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I first spoke to Cahill on the phone from Florida, shortly after Stewart's body was discovered deep in the water, days after he disappeared, near where he had been filming. Cahill was one of the three divers on the boat when Stewart sunk after momentarily surfacing from a dicey third dive of the afternoon.

"Robbie was not afraid to push the envelope," Cahill said at the time, "but he was meticulous, never reckless."

Stewart was using diving equipment that utilized a "rebreather" apparatus. The technology involves a mixture of gases and the recapturing of oxygen expelled. The advantage is that the system produces no exhale bubbles, thus allowing an underwater filmmaker to get closer to his subjects. "Rob used to say that using standard scuba gear was like going on a Serengeti safari with a weed blower on your back," Cahill said.

The rebreathing technology is riskier, though; a third dive using the system is not advisable. But the gear allows a diver to be more at one with the ecosystem being explored – a serene, ultra-immersive condition irresistible to Stewart. "You feel," Cahill said, "less like an intruder."

Cahill, a yoga-instructing Californian, first met Stewart after seeing Sharkwater more than a decade ago. Sensing they were kindred spirits, Cahill cold-called Stewart and invited him on a diving expedition in Mexico in search of whale sharks. Stewart accepted; the two quickly became comrades in ocean conservation.

The fateful trip to Florida earlier this month took more than a year of planning. The goal was to capture on film the elusive and highly endangered sawfish, a shark-ish ray so rare as to be considered divine. "Rob wanted to show the world their beauty and their majesty," Cahill said, "and to intrigue the public about them."

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Stewart would die trying.

Over the phone, Cahill had relayed a supernatural conversation he'd had with Stewart while the search in the ocean for his body continued. "Let me bring you back to the world and to your family," Cahill told his missing friend in a dream. According to Cahill, in his vision, Stewart was resistant to leaving the water, but agreed to, on the condition that Cahill continue the work that they had started.

An instant later, Stewart's body was finally found, deep in the sea, after days of searching.

"I still get goosebumps thinking about it," Cahill said after the funeral service. "I don't think I could carry on this mission on my own. Thankfully, I won't have to. Robbie will always be with me, and others will be as well."

At the funeral, accompanying a video tribute, the blissful and hopeful sound and message of a recording by the Hawaiian ukulelist Israel Kamakawiwoole wafted through the sunlit church: High above the chimney tops is where you'll find me / Somewhere over the rainbow way up high / And the dreams that you dare to, oh why, oh why can't I?

From a soothing medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World, these are words about overcoming fears and enacting change – the theme of the service that also included inspirational lines first used by Apple for its "Here's to the Crazy Ones" ad campaign in 1997.

"And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius," the marketing passage goes. "Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

What was used in 1997 to sell products was now being used as encouragement, for all intents and purposes from Stewart, a crazy dreamer whose death was anything but in vain.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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