The search by the U.S. Coast Guard for Toronto filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart continued in the Atlantic Ocean off the Upper Florida Keys on Wednesday. Mr. Stewart, best known for his 2006 documentary Sharkwater, was scuba diving near Alligator Reef, approximately eight kilometres off the ocean side of Lower Matecumbe Key.
The Coast Guard said in a news release that a crew member of The Pisces reported the 37-year-old Mr. Stewart missing about 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday. Mr. Stewart was with three other divers, all of whom are safe.
It is believed that Mr. Stewart and one other diver were on a final dive of the day when the mishap took place. After surfacing, Mr. Stewart gave the thumbs-up sign that he was okay. The other diver lost consciousness, either on the boat or in the water. While that diver was being attended to, Mr. Stewart disappeared.
Mr. Stewart, in the area filming a sequel to Sharkwater, was diving off the Queen of Nassau wreck. Sharkwater is a highly regarded feature about a species that the photographer-turned-filmmaker believed was misunderstood and needlessly feared.
According to Paul Watson, an environmental activist who founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Mr. Stewart and the other diver were using underwater breathing gear known as rebreathers, which absorb the carbon dioxide of a user's exhaled breath to permit the recycling of the substantially unused oxygen content.
"The problem with rebreathers is that they can be quite dangerous," Mr. Watson told The Globe and Mail from Miami. "You can pass out, and that's not a good thing to do in water."
One feature of the rebreathers is that they don't produce exhale bubbles, which would scare away the sharks Mr. Stewart may have been filming. "The problem with rebreathers is that you don't even know you have a problem until it happens," said Mr. Watson, who believes it's likely that Mr. Stewart had passed out after resurfacing.
Mr. Stewart was wearing a dry suit, which would make him difficult to detect at night using thermal imaging scanning. "I think the chances of finding him are pretty remote, at least for a few days," said Mr. Watson, who is assisting in the mission to find his friend.
The son of Brian and Sandra Stewart, co-founders and co-CEOs of Tribute Entertainment Media Group, Mr. Stewart has championed the preservation of sharks. "Unfortunately, our unfounded fear of sharks has blinded us to their decimation," Mr. Stewart wrote in a piece for The Globe in 2015.
"We're just devastated," Mr. Stewart's mother told The Globe. "He wanted to show people the beauty of sharks." Mr. Stewart's father added, "He changed the world. He will be looked upon for generations as a man who fought to save the ocean and who fought to save a species that he loved."
Mr. Stewart's parents rushed from their home in Toronto to the Keys, where they held a news conference. The family has established an online funding campaign to support private aircraft, boats, fuel and additional resources needed to complement the Coast Guard's ongoing search.
The family told The Globe that friends of Mr. Stewart are flocking into the Keys from all over and that Key West singer Jimmy Buffett is sending a plane and English entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Branson has offered a helicopter to aid in the search.
Weather conditions were good at the time of the dive. Coast Guard senior chief Nyx Cangemi said the search for Mr. Stewart includes boat and helicopter crews and hasn't stopped since Tuesday afternoon.
The U.S. Navy, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Monroe County Sheriff's Office are assisting in the search.
"As long as there's a chance of survival, we're going to search," Mr. Cangemi said in an interview. "We remain hopeful that we'll be able to find him alive."
With a report from Associated Press