Award-Winning Filmmaker On A Mission To Save Sharks - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Award-Winning Filmmaker On A Mission To Save Sharks

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(Warning: The video accompanying this story may be disturbing to some viewers.)

They've been called killers, man-eaters and monsters. Sharks are feared around the world, but according to many scientists, they're just misunderstood. Shark populations are in big trouble. Only a handful of people die from shark bites every year, but humans kill hundreds of millions of them for profit. A filmmaker is on a mission to save sharks, and change the way we think of them.

The documentary "Sharkwater" is the winner of more than two dozen international awards. We spend an afternoon at La Jolla Shores with the man behind the film. Rob Rob discussed his mission and his hopes for public awareness to save the sharks.

"You're told your whole life since you were a kid that sharks are dangerous. You're warned about wandering off too far into the ocean. Finally you're underwater and you see the thing you were taught your whole life to fear and it is perfect, it doesn't want to hurt you and it's the most beautiful thing you have ever seen."

Rob Rob began his underwater film adventure in 2002. He wanted to show the world these amazing creatures in all their grace and dispel the terrifying legend of "Jaws".

"People think that sharks are menacing predators of people, that they hunt human beings. If sharks were dangerous, the oceans would be a terrifying place. People would be getting eaten every day and they are not," Rob said.

According to the International Shark Attack File, on average five people die a year from shark bites. In 2007, one person suffered fatal injuries due to an unprovoked attack. That makes the lowest death total in two decades.

"Sharkwater" was released in local theaters last fall. It wasn't your average bait and tackle kind of oceanic film. This one had urgency and screamed out "do something before it's too late".

"By killing sharks we're cutting of the head, killing the most important animal for the most important ecosystem for our own survival and it's going to be a huge problem, not just for the oceans but for humanity," Rob said.

Some of the material in this film is hard to watch. The point, according to Rob, is to show the devastating waste. Shark fins are sliced off and twitching bodies are thrown overboard as they sink to the bottom, unable to swim, eventually drowning.

"The thing that I can do that is of greatest good is to film it and find a way of portraying that in the most brutally horrifying way possible so that more people see it and get moved by it," Rob said.

During the making of "Sharkwater", Rob found himself in the middle of greed, corruption and the Taiwanese mafia. Shark finning was happening everywhere. When you're cruising international waters, who acts as the police?

That's when Rob decided to team up with the only person he knew was actively fighting for sharks: Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He never imagined the danger they would encounter trying to stop the poaching.

The motivator for all crime on and offshore continues to be the value of shark fins, which is said to be a multi-billion dollar industry.

"Shark fin soup is a delicacy. It serves as a sign of respect, it's a dish that stems from thousands of years ago but has only boomed relatively recently. Seventy-five percent of the people in China surveyed on the ground don't know that shark fin soup has shark in it because the translation literally means "fish wing soup". So if they don't know that then they are not going to know that their consumption of this soup is causing the demise of one of the oldest, longest lasting most important predators the planet has," Rob said.

While he was fighting for sharks, a flesh-eating disease almost got the best of him. He spent a week in the hospital, but managed to regain his health. In the end it was all worth it. Public awareness of shark finning created change.

"'Sharkwater' hit theaters in Costa Rica in December and five days into the movie's release the government banned all international landings of sharks, about six conservation groups have been created by people that saw 'Sharkwater 'and wanted to make a difference. It changed the United States' vote on listing a species on the endangered species list. Whole Foods has said that they are not going to sell any shark products. So the message is coming," Rob said.

News 8 asked Rob to evaluate how the media has shaped the public perception of sharks.

"The media should start portraying the reality behind sharks, so when a four-foot sand shark bites someone in Florida you shouldn't put a Great White shark on the cover of Time magazine and call it 'Summer of the Shark'," Rob said."When they say shark attack, they should clearly demonstrate that it was a small shark that made an investigatory bite on a surfer, let go, no flesh was removed, no intent to do harm. On average five people die from shark bites every year. Elephants kill over 100 people every year."

Though it may be difficult to convince some people that there is little to no risk swimming in the ocean, Rob feels the more we can participate in recreational shark diving, the better it will serve sharks.

"Shark diving has saved sharks over many years, like the Bahamas. Sharks proved to be worth more in the water alive in tourism dollars than they were dead killed for their fins," Rob said.

Even if you never find yourself blowing bubbles with sharks, understand that they play a critical role in the health of our ocean. It's the circle of life that eventually leads back to us.

"Sharkwater" has certainly caught the attention of film critics and viewers, having reigned in 26 international awards. The Humane Society recently granted the Genesis Award to Rob and his crew for promoting animal protection.

The "Sharkwater" DVD was released this week.

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