MADISON STEWART, 24, is an Australian film maker, diver and friend to sharks. She's been known as 'Sharkgirl' from a young age due to her intense passion for the most feared animal of the seas. With that name Madison sounds like a superhero and could well be one. She believes humans have started to take a fear of sharks too far and are putting these animals in danger. Madison is doing her best to turn fear into respect, and trying to change the mindset on the kings of our oceans.
TOM DUNN: On your social media platforms you are known as 'Shark Girl' but who is the real Madison Stewart?
MADISON STEWART: Shark girl was actually a nick name I was given at school because all the other kids thought I was crazy to dive with sharks. I'm a 24 year old Aussie, who's family has always loved the ocean, and is obsessed with sharks. I started in conservation when I was 14 and since then it's been my passion.
TD: Where did your fascination with Sharks begin?
MS: I have always loved them, ever since I was a child. I think the fact that people were scared of sharks was what I liked the most about them.
TD: What are you advocating for? What does your video's and awareness hope to change?
MS: I'm advocating for a lot of things, mostly through the small films I make and my overall goal is to generate awareness. But I'm also trying to inspire people to care about sharks, to stop eating them, stop fishing them and stop supporting trades that are killing them.
TD: Comparing the capacity to spread your message and the dramatic nature of shark attack reports; would you say the media (including social media) is the biggest help or the biggest hindrance to your work?
MS: Social media is of course a great tool for a lot of my work, and its also the worse thing that's ever happened. We now have apps that tell us where sharks are, and people are freaking out because so many sightings are being reported and focused on in the media... they have ALWAYS been there, its just now were seeing them more thanks to technology. It also allows people who aren't doing any real conservation work to market themselves and make money off sharks and I've noticed how many people don't show sharks the respect they deserve on interactions they post on social media.
TD: Your own social media account shows you diving in some incredible locations, surrounded by sharks and other marine animals. Leaving the sharks aside for a moment, what's it like submerging yourself into a world very few humans get to see?
MS: I feel incredibly lucky, its of course wonderful, but its also sad for me. Pretty much everywhere I go and everything I do now has this weight of responsibility to it. I used to just enjoy the ocean but now that I see changes everywhere I go, I enter the water with a 'what can I do about this' mentality.
TD: Now, I assume this is your most commonly asked question, but for myself and others who view the images on your page I still need to ask. Sharks are genetically designed to hunt and kill, and when provoked they are fearsome. As you swim so close to them, do you ever get scared of their capabilities? Have you ever had moments where you'd feared you wouldn't step out of the water alive?
MS: I've had two cases where I've had to leave the water because the power and potential danger of the sharks were too much to gamble with.... I'm sure I would have had a lot more if I didn't pick my moments better. When we are getting in the water with sharks, we have the luxury of picking the best situations, like clear water, best times of day, we don't just jump in any time we want. One of the best things I ever heard was someone say "sharks aren't dangerous, situations are".
TD; Do you imagine being attacked would strengthen or weaken your desire to advocate for sharks?
MS: If I was attacked while surfing, or swimming, I'm not sure. I'd like to think so, as I have many friends who were attacked that are now amazing advocates. However if attacked diving or underwater with them, I would know that was my own fault, and a risk I chose.
TD: You advocate strongly against shark nets and shark culls, yet these remain as the most commonly used shark-attack prevention methods. What's the alternative you suggest we start to use to ensure safety?
MS: What isn't the alternative honestly?.... You could put magical crystals offshore and they would do a better job than nets and culls. There are bubble nets, kelp nets, shark spotters, eco barriers and several other alternatives too. The best and biggest suggestions of mine is to go to my website and download my spring guide to sharks and arm yourself with the most powerful weapon... knowledge.
TD: There's been a number of big campaigns to protect marine life in the last few years ('Save the Whales', 'Fight for our Reef', 'Ban the Bag' etc.) yet shark advocacy is struggling to gain support the way other causes did. Are the lives of sharks less important? Is fear preventing action? Or is it something else that is preventing sharks from being actively protected from human harm?
MS: 100% sharks are considered less important. Green Peace and Sea Shepherd never even uttered the word shark when I started in conservation.... they knew they couldn't make money off trying to 'save the sharks'. I also don't have the luxury of running an office that can help me, I am one individual making mistakes and falling over in all my work. And you know what... that's how i would like to keep it, it keeps my agenda purely for the sharks.
TD: If you could take one person with you on a dive to encounter sharks up close, who would it be, and what would you hope they would take away from the experience?
MS: If I could take one person with me, to experience the wonder of sharks, it would be the Environment Minister of Australia, who is always signing off on the continuation of legal shark fisheries on the Great Barrier Reef....
TD: What's been the most memorable shark related experience of your life so far?
MS: I got to dive with three great white sharks with no cage. never forgetting that anytime soon.
TD: In your "MY WORLD" video you mentioned you hoped to "no one would have to hear your story", implying you consider success as when sharks will no longer need to be protected. Is that success likely to be somewhere in the near future?
MS: Success would be not being known or being a conservationist and hiding in my imaginary house with my 18 pet dogs. None of us want to be doing this- we do it out of necessity. I would love to think I can finish one day soon, but as the population grows so does the greed, and the fear, and sharks will never be safe. The cause is never ending.
TD: What can we hope to see from Madison Stewart in the coming 5 years?
MS: A new documentary, hopefully.
TD: Is there a final message or a piece of advice you'd like to leave us with?
MS: Everything I do, I do for you. No matter who you are you can help sharks, with your choices as a consumer, your voice as a citizen, how you treat the ocean, how you react to the media, YOU are going to help sharks more than me.
Get in touch with Madison Stewart
Facebook - @madison.stewart.311
Instagram - @sharkgirlmadison
Read more interviews - click here
Photo credit to Perrin James and Juan Medina
Enjoying the interviews? Want to read more?
Keep the interview series alive by making a small contribution.