Approximately 100 million sharks are killed every year by humans, the majority of which are slaughtered for the shark fin trade. On a mission to raise awareness about their plight is 24-year-old Australian shark conservationist and filmmaker Madison Stewart, who has felt an affinity with the misunderstood creatures since she was a little girl. Culture Trip Melbourne spoke with the self-proclaimed ‘Shark Girl’ about the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the eco-documentary Blue and her activism work.
You’re known as ‘Shark Girl’. At what age did you have your first shark encounter?
I had fleeting encounters when I was a child, snorkeling around the Great Barrier Reef where I grew up. My first encounter that’s clear in my memory was on my 12th birthday off the coast of Australia. I was scuba diving and came across two grey nurse sharks hovering just off the ocean floor; it was amazing, I’d never been so humbled by the presence of an animal in my life. I grew up with no fear of sharks and saw a side of them like no other animals. ‘Shark Girl’ was actually my nickname at school because everyone knew I dived with sharks in my school holidays and thought I was crazy. Little did I know it would become the title of my first documentary.
What’s the most surprising behaviour that you’ve gauged from sharks while diving with them?
That they have personalities. I see their confidence differ[s], and their caution. I see them behave differently around each other and around certain people.
You grew up on the Great Barrier Reef. How has the reef changed since you first started diving?
The change I’ve seen in the reef is the entire reason I’m involved in conservation. When I was 12, we took a trip to the reef I’ll never forget because of one particular place with many sharks. I noticed a change in that area exactly one year later when the sharks that were once there were completely gone. I’ve seen the reef change, and large schools of fish that I’ve never seen again; the reality is, a lot of natural occurrences are destroying the reef, but there is no doubt that people have sped up this process. We are going to see the end of the reef soon. Both science and what I’ve seen in my short lifetime are testimonies to this.
What’s the biggest hurdle for shark conservation in Australia?
Undoubtedly, the hatred towards sharks amongst the locals and the fact they are implicated with attacks on humans, which is made worse by the media. The media is the worst enemy of sharks. Not only do they report on every attack with propaganda, but when a situation is actually dangerous — for example, if a whale carcass is offshore and sharks are feeding on it — they won’t report on the potential dangers of that, so people are aware. But they will make it a news headline if someone is attacked.
How have you used film as an avenue for your message about shark conversation?
You can stand in front of a crown and speak important truths for hours and get no response sometimes. I learnt quickly that telling people sharks weren’t out to eat humans didn’t do as much as showing them footage of interactions. If you can edit an inspiring film that can captivate and grab people’s attention, you can achieve a lot. I quickly moved from filming beautiful images of sharks to filming images of them dead and dying and being hunted by humans. My ability and drive to do that has been a powerful way of showing people what happens in the oceans. I’ve done documentaries for television, and my own small movies and even projected footage of sharks being finned on the side of restaurants serving shark fin soup — a camera is the best friend of an activist.
The Australian documentary Blue investigates overfishing, habitat loss and water pollution. How did you get involved with the film and what message do you hope the public will take from it?
The creators of that film had known about my work and asked me to be involved. I hope the public takes one message in particular: that the oceans are not okay — and if we don’t, each and every single one of us — take some kind of action as individuals, they won’t get better.
You befriended shark hunter ‘Mark the Shark’ and Australia’s ‘Shark Man’ Vic Hislop for your documentary The Shark Hunters. What did you take away from that experience?
From that, I learnt the only way I was ever going to be effective in what I did; I couldn’t do it from hatred. My initial aim was to disguise who I was in order to talk to them, but then I realized I didn’t need to. Sometimes we paint a picture of our enemies based on what others have portrayed them as, and one of the most powerful and effective things we can do is not judge them, and remember that us with opposing views are their enemies, and the best way to prove your point, is to show them you can be kind and open-minded, even to those who go against everything you believe.
If you could dispel one myth about sharks, what would it be?
That they are out to get us. I think a lot of people actually believe that sharks want to attack humans, when the reality is, we are not on their menu. We constantly put ourselves in dangerous situations, surfing, and swimming where they hunt, and we rarely get hurt. When we do, it can come down to a case of mistaken identity, and people need to understand that they do not look for humans to eat; if this was the case, we would see so many more attacks.
What can people, specifically Australians, do to ensure that sharks have a future?
Obviously the perception of sharks is one of the biggest factors in their demise in Australia, so educating yourself and not buying into the media hype. If you are entering the oceans at dangerous times in dangerous situations, then you need to make yourself aware of how to avoid or look out for sharks. I would also love to state that shark is commonly sold as meat in Australia for fish and chips under the name ‘flake’, and we should avoid purchasing and consuming shark due to high levels of mercury and the fact it contributes to decimation of the shark species.