For every hour that passed since acclaimed underwater filmmaker Rob Stewart vanished in the deep ocean, chances of recovery became more remote.
At 5:13 p.m. Friday — literally minutes after the U.S. Coast Guard reluctantly closed the formal search for the 37-year-old Stewart — members of the Key Largo Fire Department Dive Team radioed in: A camera on a remotely operated vehicle, known as an ROV, relayed an image of the missing diver in 219 feet of water off Alligator Reef off Islamorada.
“The [underwater] visibility was terrible, just awful,” said Rob Bleser, a Key Largo dive operator who serves as the fire department’s dive-team captain. “I don’t think we would have found him without the ROV.”
Two rebreather-equipped divers working with the Dive Team’s Special Response Unit hit the water and followed the ROV cable down, quickly finding and securing Stewart’s body. A safety diver using traditional scuba gear stayed at the 90-foot depth for support. Bleser was piloting the ROV.
“We don’t normally go that deep,” Bleser said of the ocean depths at the Queen of Nassau shipwreck that Stewart and dive companion Peter Sotis were diving on, seeking to video sharks and sawfish known to visit the historic wreck.
Seven dive-team members and support volunteers were aboard the Pisces, an Upper Keys boat rigged for advanced technical diving. That same boat had carried Stewart Jan. 31, when he disappeared after surfacing from his third dive that day to the Queen of Nassau.
The Coast Guard launched an air-and-sea search but darkness fell before any sign of Stewart was seen. Boats from the Upper Keys headed out last Wednesday morning to put more eyes on the water.
The Key Largo Fire Department Dive Team performed one dive to the shipwreck that morning but the divers were hampered by poor visibility and limited bottom time.
“At that depth, even with rebreathers, the bottom time is 20 minutes because they have to make a 75-minute decompression stop coming up,” Bleser said. “That changes everything.”
“Given that so little can be accomplished in that kind of profile,” he said, “logistically it makes more common sense to use the ROV.”
The ROV was borrowed from the Reef Environmental Educational Foundation, a nonprofit science group based in Key Largo. That same equipment was used to locate a Key Largo sailboat that sank in deep water in August 2014, claiming the life a local man.
Stewart was found about 100 yards from the shipwreck. Bleser said the deepwater divers who recovered Stewart prefer to remain anonymous.
The search for the Sharkwater filmmaker, who was born and raised in Toronto, “was one of the longest and most arduous missions we’ve had,” Bleser said.
“Given all the information we had, we believed we knew where to look,” he said. “It’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack, with the needle constantly getting smaller and the haystack getting bigger. But we like to look after our own.”
Investigation continues into the cause of the fatal accident. Stewart was a highly accomplished diver but was new to using rebreather gear and going deeper than he ever had, news accounts say.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206