Madison Stewart (a.k.a Shark Girl) is only 18 years old and has logged over 450 dives... Most of those with sharks. She has traded school friends for creatures deemed deadly man eaters. A passionate conservationist, Madison has dedicated the last 4 years of her life fighting for a creature the world wants to see dead. In the process she has filmed her playful relationships with the toothy giants but likens it simply to playing tug of war with a puppy. Madison Stewart is an independent film maker and is not just attempting but successfully turning our perception of sharks on its head. An integral member of conservation societies; Sea Shepard and Positive Change for Marine Life. Madison alone is still single handedly documenting sharks and raising awareness of the injustices they face, standing in no ones shadow to do this.
Surf Sister, Kat Charles caught up with the young activist to share her motivations with you and to find out what Surf Sisters around Australia can do to make a difference...
Can you share a little background with us, where you grew up, family etc. has that influenced what you do today?
I was born in NSW. When I was 2 years old I lived on a yacht with my mother and father and sailed it through the Great Barrier Reef. I don't remember much of that of course because I was so young, but its probably how I became so connected to that area of ocean.
My father has been a very influential aspect of why I love the oceans, he taught me about everything and how to understand the relevance of every creature and their preservation. My mother is a pretty avid skydiver and she scuba dives as well, so I'm lucky to have both adventurous parents!
I think my first real love of sharks probably stemmed from a catfish I had when I was 4, who looked allot like a tiny shark! actually my very first snorkel I remember I saw a small school of brim and got madly excited, I never guessed that in a few years I would be hanging from reef wall drop offs in the open ocean surrounded by fish schools so thick they blocked the sun!
Have you got any formal qualifications or have you studied environmental/marine sciences? Has this helped your understanding, is it important for your work?
I always wanted to finish school and do marine biology that was my plan and I was sticking to it, however it seems the destruction of the oceans got to me before I had a chance to pursue any official qualifications. I use research, I work with scientists, but I don't want to become one. I know a bit about the oceans, I know a fair bit about sharks, and while I know it would be beneficial to have that piece of paper, I want to keep doing what I'm doing because I believe in the power of film... at least until you can promise me no sharks will be killed while I'm studying!
You like to put go pros in sharks mouths that must take a lot of trust how long have you been swimming with sharks and how did you go about gaining their trust as well as trusting them not to bite your arm off?
Ha ha anything for that perfect shot!
I have been swimming with sharks since I was 7... My first real encounter was my 12th birthday at Julian rocks in Byron Bay with Sundive, they were Grey Nurse sharks. I'm now 18 and I've logged about 450 dives, most of those with sharks.
Trusting sharks is very easy, because they are very predictable. They are potentially dangerous creatures, but so are dogs, its just all about knowing the movements, knowing to pick up when they are angry etc. I've filmed people hand feeding tiger sharks, hugging sharks, it really only takes a small while to understand their movements, its like playing tug of war with your puppy, only the puppy is really big!
What equipment do you use and how important is it to your work?
I use a simple tape handycam, and my light and motion stingray HD housing is what lets me take it underwater - but in my eyes, this thing is a weapon, footage is the most powerful tool in the fight for sharks. After my films and footage, sometimes people just fall in love with the underwater world and realise that I didn't get 'eaten' filming it.
Aside from that my dive gear is all great but I feel like a fish in a costume and much prefer freediving, oh and my wetsuit socks are also very important to me, purely because they are a bit famous now and always a good conversation starter!
Who inspires you and where do you draw your inspiration and courage?
There is one reason for everything I do and that is family. This isn't just about saving a species for me from unlawful destruction, its about family, I grew up with these sharks. When I was 14 I left school to begin traveling and diving more and traded my school fees for an underwater camera with the sole reason of showing my home to the people who were about to destroy it.
I was only 14 when I learned that the government allowed approximately 78,000 sharks to be taken legally from inside the great barrier reef marine park and world heritage area by professional fishermen. Their fins are used in shark fin soup and there body is sold in this country as a cheap meat. I always knew about the trouble sharks faced from finning their fins are cut off and their bodies thrown back into the ocean and the shark is still alive, bleeding to death or suffocating as it cannot swim to pass water over its gills, but i never knew this problem would reach my sanctuary! My inspiration for using film in particular to fight this issue is certainly because of the film 'SHARKWATER' by Rob Stewart, a must see film for anyone thinking of turning to the shark side, but to me it proved film could be used to do good for sharks, just like jaws wiped out 90% of their population.
Dealing with the people who are scared of sharks is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and that is what requires real courage, not being in the water with sharks, that's where I feel the most safe.
What projects are you currently working on?
The fishery operating along the east coast of Australia has 200 commercial gillnet vessels operating to target sharks in the marine park, all I'm working on right now, is making sure people know about it and trying to inspire the Australian public to become aware and to fight with me against it.
I am trying to get people to spread the word and contact the government before the review of this fishery occurs in February 2012.
Which organisations are you working with and do you feel that their support is helping to get your voice heard or do you find you are making more of an independent movement?
I do a lot of work with Sea Shepherd, I first became involved when I was asked to speak at one of their screenings of Sharkwater and I got involved to get the organisation to do more for sharks. Positive Change For Marine Life is also a conservation society I have worked with and shared information with to help establish them.
I went to schools to talk about sharks with CSIRO and the Australian Marine Conservation Society have used my footage. I helped out with some footage for another set of documentaries known as 'Sarah Shark' raising awareness for their kind.
I have really given away films to countless societies and individuals that can use them to raise awareness, change peoples minds, and even the laws in their countries. But when it comes to what I do, it really is a solo mission.
What is the most rewarding thing about what you do?
I love it when people look at me like I'm crazy, but the best thing is being at a screening. My film is playing, people are staring at the film, sometimes people cry, some they are just in awe. It is when people are watching my films on the big screen, that I am in complete satisfaction with my work. But most of all, I would say its going to be going back to the Great Barrier Reef when I am old and seeing sharks.
What is the most frustrating thing about what you do?
Where do I start? people tell me all the time how lucky I am, but leaving school at 14 to having only sharks as friends can be a very lonely experience. Fighting for a creature the world wants to see dead is also difficult. As soon as a shark attack occurs, the media has their own feeding frenzy and its the most devastating thing that can undo all my work. But the worse, as I said, is that people are legally taking sharks from the Great Barrier Reef. It really seems like no one cares about something that affects me so deeply!
Where has your work taken you in terms of travel etc?
I have dived all along Australia's east coast, GBR, isolated sea mounts in the Coral Sea, Bahamas islands, Fiji & Micronesia. I have met amazing people and seen the most amazing things.
I love fighting for what I love, but on the bad side, this work has taken me to places where shark fins are on display, their jaws hang on the walls. I go where I can find sharks in hope to film them. In the process I've been swept a fair way out to sea from the boats, been stung, bitten, grazed (never by sharks and all my fault), inside ship wrecks forgetting the way out, near hypothermia, its all part of the wonderful world of diving!
What would you like to share with the readers? any advice to readers as to how they can make a difference?
I have been right up next to huge tiger sharks, cage less with a great white, open ocean with sharks... and the only thing that has ever chased me and almost bit me, was a turtle! that's what i need you to know!
What can you do for sharks?
- Visit my website and send a letter to the listed addresses of Australian government to ask them to halt shark fishing in the Great Barrier Reef
- Do not eat the Asian delicacy 'shark fin soup' don't go to restaurants that serve it and protest if you can.
- Teach everyone you know, forget about jaws he was actually made out of plastic and isn't real!
- Don't eat 'flake' its sharks meat, and you can buy it at Coles and Woolworths, this is actually shark from the great barrier reef marine park!
- Fish and chips is often flake too so be sure to ask what type of fish it is! (Shark meat is actually really bad for you too)
- Don't let the media get away with this circus around shark attacks, remember that 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year, and each year, an average of 5 humans die as a result of a shark attack, from blood loss of the severe bite and not being 'eaten'.
- I know I am probably talking to surfers here, so I know its hard to love something that might see you as a yummy seal. Respect their place in the oceans. Avoid surfing in murky water around dusk or dawn.
- The real change occurs from people who are scared of them and have the power to become help for them.
Do you have any major long term goals?
Yes. I would like to stop the legal target of sharks inside the Great Barrier Reef. I would really love to make a long documentary. And I would like to be more confident at riding a push bike!
To get in contact with Madison,
Sea Shepherd onshore crew
Words By Kat Charles
Kat Charles in Byron Bay,
Kat studied Surf Science and Technology at Edith Cowan as well as being apart of collective art shows such as "Beyond The Picket White Fence" and "See" with the focus of 'art for arts sake'. Her photos capture the community and culture of the surfing lifestyle in the Northern Rivers of NSW. It's all about the love of surf, skate, create and friends.