Swimming with sharks: Madison Stewart

Connie Ye speaks to the young shark conservationist and filmmaker on why these fish are friends, not food.

"Societies like Sea Shepherd cause controversy. People are used to violent revolutions, just not in the name of animals.”
“Societies like Sea Shepherd cause controversy. People are used to violent revolutions, just not in the name of animals.”

The world beneath the ocean’s surface can be a frightening place for the uninitiated. Even for amphibious Australians, we stick mostly to the coastlines, always half wary of what might come from beyond the deep.

And when the bogeyman shark does come to visit, we tend to be left with a vision of blood and maimed limbs, amputees and sobbing families clutching one another on the shore.

Media reportage surrounding shark attacks every year is one-sided and sensationalist. Our fear of sharks, of their teeth and wily man-eating ways, was culturally embedded in our beach signs and lost Titanic survivors far before Jaws came along. But ridiculous as it sounds, what do sharks themselves think of all this?

Madison Stewart is one eighteen-year- old asking that question, in her fight to turn the tide against the ageless myth of sharks as monsters. An underwater filmmaker and shark conservationist, Stewart shoots documentaries on the plight of the shark, one of the most endangered species in the world, in a less than accommodating environment for a girl with such controversial convictions.

In one of Stewart’s films, Man Eating Shark, an inquisitive white nose bumps against the camera before the shot cuts to Stewart slowly, mesmerisingly stroking her hand over it. It’s clear that Stewart has just been playing with a Great White, traditional predator-at-large and supposed serial man-killer. It takes a few more moments to realise that she’s virtually unprotected save her chainmail-like wetsuit. So natural is the way she handles the creatures that we forget the usual (voluntary) encounters between man and shark tend to occur with at least one of them suspended in a cage.

Does she ever find herself in a situation where a shark session might turn nasty?

“There have been many moments where panic would like to kick in and have a say, and many moments of danger. I think it’s noteworthy that not one of these is the result of a shark. Sharks have never shown me any aggression or danger.”

To make a point about the fallacy of shark aggression, Stewart instead offers instances of danger as resulting from equipment failure, intrepid ocean conditions and “being chased by the occasional turtle.”

Born in NSW, from an early age Stewart’s father, a dive master, took her free diving in the oceans, where an affinity with the piscine lives around her was born.

At age two her family lived briefly on the Great Barrier Reef. It was on her twelfth birthday that her first encounter with grey nurse sharks around Byron Bay led to a deepening concern for the animals. With her work taking her to places as far flung as Micronesia, to the Coral Sea and the cenotes of Mexico, Stewart’s love for sharks took a turn for a more serious fixation when she realised the threats facing shark populations in Australia’s own waters.

“This all started for me more precisely when I was fourteen, and found out the Australian government had legalised shark fishing inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage area, taking 100,000 sharks a year,” she says. “As one of the few people who get to see these creatures first hand, to help them is almost an obligation.”

Stewart’s main focus is also in education, despite sacrificing the completion of her own High School Certificate by leaving school at fourteen. And although she insists it was “never a planned career” and that she does “dream of normality,” this hasn’t prevented her from being invited to talks, predominantly due to her uniquely placed situation in helping younger generations realise their complicity in consuming shark meat. She gives a common instance of how many people are unaware that the ‘flake’ in fish and chips is simply another ‘gummy’ version of shark. And the solution?

“[Putting] public pressure on the government, consuming smarter, knowing what not to buy and how it affects sharks,” Stewart says. “There are many simple ways people can help, my life is in fact devoted to making people realise this.”

She’s adamant that people see the good in these creatures.

“[People should] look past the Jaws and media view of sharks, and see them for what they really are, an amazing and important creature,” she says.

Stewart speaks with passion on the topic of the devastatingly (and ironically) inhumane treatment of sharks. It’s easy for her to rattle off statistics, but she maintains that “the most powerful weapon against sharks is humans’ fear of them, this is what we must eliminate first. Most people don’t even know sharks are responsible for an average 5 deaths a year, whereas humans kill 100 million sharks a year, most of this through a practice called ‘shark finning’ where the fins are cut off and used in a status soup in China,” says Stewart.

“The shark’s thrown back while still alive, to painfully bleed to death or suffocate. Also despite being fish, sharks live and breed with long life cycles and have few young, like mammals, making them very susceptible to fishing pressure.”

I broach her political views. For someone so embedded in her outlook, what does she think about how the general public views the tactics they use to go about raising awareness? I bring up a suggestion that Greenpeace may appear extreme to some sections of the public.

Stewart laughs at the idea, conceding that Greenpeace are “extreme letter senders”. But she outlines the importance of direct, and at times necessarily violent, action to the cause of ocean conservation.

“It’s societies like Sea Shepherd who may, yes, cause controversy. But let’s face it, people are used to violent revolutions, just not in the name of animals. The truth of Australia is that our waters are currently run by governments and departments who are not established to protect them, but harvest them, and the people of this country can be so very distant from the truth. For example, shark from the Great Barrier Reef is for sale at your local Woolies.”

She goes further to posit the legalisation of shark fishing as being “the organised crime of governments”.

“You’ll always get rebuttal for this kind of [forceful] action, but occasions do call for it, when direct action needs to take place because there’s no hope for taking a different approach or no time, it can be the only way. I wouldn’t personally use this approach in any situations I’ve faced, but I also wouldn’t refrain from cutting an animal loose from a line.”

As a young woman doing something different in a dying world, Madison Stewart will continue to have a lot of public attention come her way. So far she’s been featured on Triple J and Bing advertisements, and, considering her message and her line of work, publicity is probably more welcome than not.

Her passion is one she wants to see shared.

“Anyone can get in the water with a dolphin or a turtle or whale, and love it and see the beauty, but hidden in a feared apex predator is a beauty I think only a select few can appreciate.

“To love something like sharks, that the rest of the world wants to see dead [yet] has no understanding of, makes you want to be a part of the movement to change this.”

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