Florida Keys

The Coast Guard report on filmmaker's fatal dive is ready. But they're not sharing it yet.

Rob Stewart was a well-known Canadian filmmaker and conservationist. He went missing after a deep dive off Key Largo on Jan. 31, 2017, and was found dead Feb. 3, 2017. His dive partner that day, and the man who provided and trained him on the complex rebreather scuba equipment he was using when he disappeared, was indicted on federal charges that he sold similar gear to Libyans in violation of trade embargoes.
Rob Stewart was a well-known Canadian filmmaker and conservationist. He went missing after a deep dive off Key Largo on Jan. 31, 2017, and was found dead Feb. 3, 2017. His dive partner that day, and the man who provided and trained him on the complex rebreather scuba equipment he was using when he disappeared, was indicted on federal charges that he sold similar gear to Libyans in violation of trade embargoes.

A long-awaited U.S. Coast Guard report on the diving death of famed Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart off the coast of Islamorada in February 2017 was completed late last year but has yet to be released to the public.

The report is expected to address several marine safety factors that may have contributed to the 37-year-old celebrity conservationist's death, which for about a week brought international attention to the Keys.

During the four days he was missing, a massive 6,000-square-mile air and sea search was undertaken by multiple state, local and federal agencies, as well as private citizens, with celebrities like Richard Branson and Jimmy Buffett offering resources.

In the end though, his body was found on the ocean floor about 300 feet from the spot from where he was last seen.

There was fallout with just about everyone connected to the case. His family sued both his dive partner/trainer and the scuba company that provided the boat and crew for his ambitious film shoot, which took place about six miles out in the ocean off the Upper Florida Keys.

His death — and the lawsuit — also resulted in the end of one of Florida's most celebrated dive rescue and recovery units that for decades worked under the flag of a local volunteer fire department.

Specifically, the Coast Guard report will likely go over whether Stewart received adequate training on the complex rebreather equipment he was using when he embarked on three dangerous deep dives filming a documentary on shark conservation, the accountability of the dive shop boat crew who took Stewart and his team out to the Queen of Nassau wreck near Alligator Reef, and what caused him to lose consciousness and sink once he reached the surface after his final dive.

Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Sammons, an agent with the Coast Guard Investigative Services, would not comment on the report's findings. He and his colleagues finished their investigation in December and submitted their report to headquarters in Washington, D.C. The D.C. office sent the report back with questions in February, and Sammons sent back the revised report later that month, he said last week.

Also participating in the investigation is the United States Navy's Experimental Dive Unit, which examined the Revo rebreather unit Stewart wore when he disappeared below the waves on Jan. 31, 2017, as well as the Shearwater Petrel dive computer that was attached to him.

Sources say the computer showed his body was underwater for 3,977 minutes, or about 66 and 1/2 hours. That would mean it surfaced about six hours before the team who found Stewart said it did. But a computer battery glitch is likely behind the gap, sources say. The timeline difference was discussed during deposition taken as part of a negligence lawsuit filed last year by Stewart's family against Horizon Dive Adventures, and the Fort Lauderdale-based company Add Helium and its owner, Peter Sotis, who trained Stewart on his rebreather tanks and was his dive partner on the day he died.

However, sources familiar with the investigation said the recovery team's timeline is correct, and the computer's battery powered down after about 60 hours of being underwater and kicked back on from the impact made when the remotely operated submarine controlled by the recovery team on the surface made contact with his body on Feb. 3, 2017.

Navy Lt. Jennifer Jewell, spokeswoman for the Experimental Dive Unit, declined to comment when asked about the timeline.

"It would be inappropriate for NEDU to comment on an ongoing legal process," Jewell said in an email Thursday.

Still, the team who found the body remains the source of controversy and litigation. When the Coast Guard confirmed the body was found shortly after 5 p.m., the agency reported the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department's dive team made the discovery and recovery.

This was partly true, depending on who was asked, and the record wasn't corrected until nearly two months later when Stewart's family and estate filed a lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court on March 28, 2017.

The only member of the fire department taking part in the operation that day was Bob Bleser, from whom the department distanced itself right after the lawsuit was filed. The fire department also insisted that he was not acting under its auspices. Bleser controlled the remote control sub that located Stewart's body from the deck of the Pisces, a vessel owned and operated by Horizon Dive Adventures.

Among the dive team that went down and recovered the body after Bleser found Stewart were Dan Dawson, who owns Horizon, one of his employees and a Boca Raton attorney and underwater forensic investigator named Craig Jenni.

Jenni did not respond to emailed questions about the recovery, and Donna E. Albert, Horizon's attorney, did not respond to phone and emailed requests for comment on the case.

In the immediate aftermath of the recovery, the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department stayed silent after several stories credited it with finding Stewart's body. But, following the lawsuit, the department's attorney stated emphatically that the department had no dive team.

This came as a gut punch to Bleser, who'd coordinated at least a dozen high-risk recoveries under the banner of either the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department and its nonprofit corporate predecessor, which in 2013 lost its contract with the special taxing district that oversees unincorporated Key Largo's emergency services budget. That department did have a dive team, which was not carried over to the new department.

Bleser, who declined to comment for this article, may have inadvertently contributed to the confusion about the department's dive team because of the successful methods he's used over the years to locate bodies in water typically too deep for law enforcement teams to risk venturing.

Rather than using a set team of divers, Bleser would reach out to the South Florida dive community and assemble crews based on the skill sets needed for a particular job. The community was normally happy and willing to help. The remote-controlled sub used to find Stewart, for instance, was donated by the Key Largo conservation group, Reef Environmental Educational Foundation.

But because the recovery team in the Stewart case included the owner of the dive shop now being sued by the victim's family, and a lawyer and investigator who takes cases for insurance companies, it has become an issue among the several lawyers involved in the case.

What happened

According to then Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Beaver's Aug. 4, 2017, autopsy report, Stewart died of acute hypoxia, or lack of oxygen.

The day of the accident, Stewart and Sotis had just completed two dives at more than 220 feet filming the next installment of Stewart's "Sharkwater" documentary series. They were calling it a day, but went down one more time to recover a grappling hook.

When they came to the top of the water, both gave the "OK" signal, and Sotis boarded the Pisces first, according to Beaver's report. Once on the vessel, Sotis "immediately had a medical event, which he later described as 'I passed out,'" Beaver wrote.

Sotis was given oxygen and quickly recovered.

But, while all the attention was on Sotis, "Mr. Stewart was not able to board the vessel and slipped beneath the surface of the water," Beaver wrote.

According to Beaver, Stewart quickly lost consciousness as he sank.

"The steep descent rate and the absence of any fluctuation recorded by the Petrel dive computer as a fourth dive indicate that Mr. Stewart did not make any attempt at self rescue once submerged," Beaver wrote.

Reached Thursday, Sotis did not comment specifically on the civil case, but said he is "anxiously looking forward to the release of the Coast Guard report.