U.S. Coast Guard vessels and aircraft continued their search for famed Canadian conservationist and documentary filmmaker Rob Stewart Thursday afternoon.
Stewart, 37, went missing Tuesday after resurfacing from a deep-water dive on the Queen of Nassau wreck near Alligator Reef off Islamorada.
Coast Guard spokesman Petty Office Eric Woodall said Thursday that the agency had two MH-65 helicopters and an airplane from Air Station Miami on the search, as well as several vessels, including the fast-response cutter Richard Etheridge, based in Miami Beach. Also helping with the search are crews with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Woodall said the Coast Guard has no estimate on how long the search will continue.
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“We don’t have any suspension plans at this time,” he said.
Stewart and a small group of divers were filming the next installment of his Sharkwater series. He and a colleague resurfaced about 5:15 p.m. and the other diver got onto their dive boat boat and passed out. When the boat crew went to retrieve Stewart, he was no longer in sight. According to an email from the conservation group Sea Shepherd, colleagues think Stewart passed out as well and floated off.
Stewart was using rebreathing diving equipment instead of conventional compressed air scuba tanks, which his friend Tyler McLeod said in a Wednesday interview with Entertainment Tonight Canada is “a very complicated system.”
Rebreathers recirculate the diver’s air by passing it through a scrubbing pad, which takes out the carbon dioxide. The devices have advantages, especially when filming wildlife, particularly the lack of bubbles to scare off fish. But they also pose more risk to a diver’s safety than conventional scuba tanks.
The Queen of Nassau is in 225 feet of water and McLeod said that was a deeper dive than Stewart had done before.
“They were going deeper than he’s gone before,” McLeod said in the ET interview. “Because in his eyes, it’s been getting harder and harder to find sharks, to get sharks.”
Stewart’s sister Alexandra Stewart said by phone from Toronto Wednesday morning that she’s worried his buoyancy control device, which keeps divers floating at the surface, isn’t fully inflated.
“Time is really important right now,” she said.
The crew of a vessel called The Pisces reported Stewart missing around 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, according Woodall. The Coast Guard launched a 33-foot fast response boat from Coast Guard Station Islamorada, a MH-65-Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Miami and the cutter Charles Sexton from Sector Key West to conduct the search.
Divers with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department joined the search Wednesday morning.
“There are a lot of variables, but right now we’re just focusing on locating him,” Woodall said.
Sea Shepherd, whose leader, Paul Watson, was heavily featured in 2002’s Sharkwater, has sent one if its Miami-based vessels to help in the search for Stewart.
“At this point, we can only hope for the best,” Watson said in a Facebook posting.
In the meantime, Stewart’s colleagues and family are asking for the local diving, fishing, boating and flying communities for their help.
“We’re asking everyone in the area to help out, particularly if they have sonar or infrared equipment,” Alexandra Stewart said.
“Any boats who can help use marine channel 16 to contact cutter Richard Etheridge for specific instructions. Search conditions are optimal. Search area for tomorrow is 25-30 meters long, 10 miles wide pattern off of Islamorada. Expectations are only Rob's head is above water. His divesuit and rebreather are all black. Stay tuned for the coordinates of the corners of the search.”
The call for help has been heeded by scores of friends and strangers.
Stewart’s family told the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper that singer Jimmy Buffett is sending an airplane and British entrepreneur Richard Branson has offered a helicopter.
His friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for the costs of the search effort: www.gofundme.com/search-rescue-for-rob-stewart