Florida Keys

He sank to the ocean bottom, but details of filmmaker's diving death not coming soon

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.
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.

The anticipated Coast Guard Investigative Services report into the scuba diving death of famed Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart off Islamorada last year won't be released to the public for at least six months, an official said this week.

Stewart's body was found lying on the ocean floor more than 220 feet below the surface on Feb. 3, 2017, three days after he slipped beneath the waves while filming a documentary on shark conservation, sparking a 6,000-square-mile, multi-agency air and sea search for the 37-year-old documentary maker and conservationist.

Key West-based agents with the Coast Guard Investigative Service finished their report into the incident in December, but a Coast Guard official in Washington, speaking on background this week, said the agency is at least a half a year off from making the report's findings public.

The official would not comment on what's behind the delay in releasing the report, but noted the document contains more than a dozen safety recommendations that must be reviewed by multiple offices within the agency.

Industry stakeholders from dive shop owners to equipment manufacturers await the report because its findings are expected to have a wide impact on future safety procedures.

The report is also being sought by several attorneys working for multiple clients involved in an ongoing lawsuit originally filed in Broward County Circuit Court in March 2017. That case has since gone to federal court.

FLKeysNews.com filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the report, which sources say is expected to address a number of issues, including whether Stewart received the proper training on the complex rebreather equipment he used Jan. 31, 2017, during three dangerous deep dives while filming the documentary.

Unlike conventional scuba tanks, rebreathers don't expel the diver's carbon dioxide when he or she exhales. Rather, the CO2 is absorbed, scrubbed for unused oxygen and the air recirculated within the unit. Deep divers like the system because they can stay under longer, and filmmakers like rebreathers because there are no bubbles to scare off fish or that end up in camera shots.

The report will also likely address the accountability of the dive boat crew that took Stewart and his team out to the Queen of Nassau wreck near Alligator Reef, and also what caused Stewart to lose consciousness and sink like a stone after he and his dive partner surfaced from their final dive.

Stewart's family and estate is suing Horizon Dive Adventures in Key Largo. They are also suing the Fort Lauderdale-based Add Helium, which provided the rebreather equipment for the expedition, and whose owner, Peter Sotis, trained Stewart on the gear. Sotis was Stewart's dive partner on the fateful film shoot.

The negligence suit claims both parties' actions that day contributed to Stewart's death.

Rob Stewart's parents, Sandy and Brian Stewart, discuss their son Rob's diving death off Key Largo at a March 2017 press conference at their attorney's office in Coral Gables. Stewart's family and estate are suing Horizon Dive Adventures in Key Largo and Fort Lauderdale-based Add Helium, which provided the rebreather equipment for the expedition. VINCENT DEVRIES Miami Herald file photo

The incident

Stewart died of acute hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, then-Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Beaver wrote in his Aug. 4, 2017, autopsy report.

The day of the accident, Stewart and Sotis had completed two dives at more than 220 feet while filming the next installment of Stewart's Sharkwater documentary series. They were about to wrap things up for the day, but went down a third time to retrieve a grappling hook they left behind on the second dive.

When they surfaced, both gave the "OK" sign to the crew on board the Pisces dive boat. Sotis boarded the vessel first, but had a "medical event," Beaver wrote, and passed out. People on the Pisces, including Sotis' wife, a doctor, gave him oxygen, and he quickly recovered.

But in the chaos, no one was watching Stewart, who sank. Authorities originally thought he drifted off, but as they were about to call off the three-day search, a remote control submarine found him about 300 feet from where he was last spotted.

Beaver wrote in his report that Stewart likely lost consciousness before he reached the ocean floor.

"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.