Saturday, July 26, 2014

Interview with Shark Girl Madison Stewart

Madison Stewart with a shark.

Madison Stewart, also known as Shark Girl, is passionate about creatures that many of us are terrified of. So passionate is she in fact that there is a DVD documenting her inspiring story. Which is not bad given that she was born in the 1990s! According to Madison, fear of sharks is much scarier than sharks themselves - especially if we take the time to examine the consequences of that fear. Sharks are not the only animal to suffer because humans are frightened of them. But theirs can be a tough cause.

Madison took the SAT challenge and answered our questions about sharks, people, and her campaign to help both species. 

You’ve been described as a conservationist, activist and shark campaigner, but what does your typical day involve?

I am not a conservationists or activist, I’m an unprofessional filmmaker and someone who loves sharks! I really don’t like labels, I think any human can make a difference and we don’t need to label ourselves to do so. My normal day job involves making coffee, because what I do for sharks is not a job, its my hobby, its not for money, its my chosen obligation to the oceans I love. I take the responsibility of teaching the public, and challenging the corporations and business that harm sharks, a big part of this is filming sharks, the rest is personal research. So I see my ‘job’ as protecting sharks and my future.  

Many people feel out of their element in water but you describe it as your home. Why are you so comfortable in the ocean?

I grew up in the oceans and spent the most time there, as a kid I wasn’t allowed to ride a push bike because it was dangerous, but I was taken diving with sharks. Its all a matter of perspective, and my perspective was that the oceans were home.

Fears and phobias of sharks are common, yet you don’t seem to fear sharks. Was there ever a stage when you feared them? What is it about sharks that you love?

Never feared sharks, because they are not scary, they are just like a dog, but allot bigger. There have been a few times where I’ve deemed a situation dangerous and taken action to remove myself from danger, but there has been no fear of shark that go along with this. What is it about sharks? Im not sure how to answer this, I don’t really know, I’ve always loved them. I love the monsters, the neglected and the forgotten, the animals most run from, they always had a special place in my heart.  

Madison and I have many things in common as it turns out. We both like taking photos. Her subjects are somewhat different to mine...
Have you ever had an encounter with a creature that left you a little scared?

I was once chased by a turtle.

What are the biggest threats to sharks?

The industries that involve sharks are obviously the trade of shark meat, medicines, shark fins, pet food, and other commercial fisheries that have sharks as bycatch, however all of these only contribute to the biggest problem, which is fear. Things happening to sharks are not the issue the issue is that no one wants to fight against them!

But I am almost certain I have cuddled this exact same shark.

Pretty sure I didn't cuddle this one though.
You gave up school so you could spend more time underwater and campaigning for the conservation of sharks. That is incredible commitment – what drives you to keep going?

I actually gave up school just to selfishly dive with sharks and see more of the oceans and get into underwater filmmaking, it was just after this decision came about that I was faced with a shocking realisation that sharks were disappearing. I went back to places I had seen them in the past expecting to see them again only to see that they were gone. This is when my life took on a whole new meaning, And what drives me is the thought that I can never let those who took my whole world from me get away with it.

Madison speaks her mind.
How do people react when they find out that you are fighting to conserve a creature that frightens them?

Its always amazing, people question me in every way possible, and I tell them a few simple facts about sharks and they are shocked, talking to people on the street about what I do changes the world, they always leave with a different opinion! Then other times they are just a little bit offended that I am saving this animal they think is out to eat the human race.

Madison is somewhat more brave than I am.
In your view, how can people reduce the risk of shark attack?

This is crazy- its so simple, it should be taught in schools, it should be every day knowledge, especially in Australia, but its ignored for no good reason other than fear and stupid things like the WA shark cull that enforce that fear! To avoid a shark attack you need to avoid producing signs that you are injured wildlife, which is hard because humans are dorky in the ocean.

Don’t surf or swim in ideal hunting conditions for sharks like dusk or dawn and murky water. Being in the water near someone catching or searing fish will attract sharks, go and learn all about what sharks look for and how they look for it, and you can teach yourself to co exist with them is my best advice! We should treat the fact we share our oceans with a large dangerous predators the way we do driving a car, you have to know what you’re doing before you get in a drive, and if you cant handle the roads you should stay off them, or accept the associated risks.

What can ordinary people do to help conserve threatened shark species?

Ordinary people are the only ones that can help, avoid eating sharks, its often the key ingredient in plain ‘fish and chips’ and also called ‘flake’, don’t buy any products made form shark, shark liver oil or cartilage tablets for example. Even things like canned tuna, whose fishing practices kill thousands of sharks each year through accidental catch, so when you buy tuna your supporting the killing of sharks. Write letters, voice your opinion, find out more! Speak up for an animal thats never had human support!

Not a dish I've ever tried, I am proud to say.
Do you have any advice for animal lovers who want to turn their passion into action?

Never give up, out of the many issues in this world, the biggest one is people thinking they are powerless against them. We have so much influence, the rules I follow are these, show up to a protest dressed in your fanciest business attire, because you are serious about it. Research!!! Know more about the issue than the people you are confronting, and get public on your side, government never respond to a whisper, but cannot ignore a scream!

A rare pic of Madison on terra firma.
Thank you Madison for taking time to share your passion. If you like what you've read you might just wish to get yourself a copy of "Shark Girl", a DVD about Madison's life and passion, from your local ABC shop. Love the cover! You can also read SAT's previous post on shark science here.