In the hierarchy of the ocean, sharks are the apex predator, not the prey. But the fearsome fish face a powerful enemy in humans, who've decimated their populations by commercial fishing. Enter Madison Stewart. The 20-year-old Australian who's been swimming with sharks since she was 12 has made it her life's mission to protect them, raise awareness about their importance to the ocean's ecosystem and stop the fishing and illegal finning that endangers them. Her inspiring story is the subject of the Smithsonian Channel documentary "Shark Girl," which premieres on June 15.
MNN: You're a tireless activist. What drives you?
Madison Stewart: The desire for change, a few small wins, and an ongoing supply of passion for sharks and the natural world. I'd love to say it's the injustices in our society and all the "bad people" out there that drive me to fight against it, but it's not. I don't do anything out of hatred or anger, or because I hate the people destroying things. I do it because I love what they destroy. I am lucky enough to be aware that one person can make a difference, something I had to prove to myself, and once didn't believe.
When, why, how did your fascination with sharks begin?
I actually have no idea. My mother insisted the goldfish I had at age 4 was chosen by me because it looked like a shark. I was introduced to the oceans by my father through books, documentaries and diving; it has just always been the sharks that grabbed my fascination. No other animal is capable of inflicting such a fear in people. I have always been different to others, and part of me loves monsters.
Why are sharks so misunderstood? And why are they so important?
Sharks are misunderstood like no other creature, to the point where it is actually contributing to their slaughter. I think it has a lot to do with media, but also that people cannot go and see them for themselves and learn the truth. Sharks are NOT what you think, and myself and many other people spend hours in the water with large sharks and feed them at ease on regular occasions. They are the apex predators, and nature doesn't make animals like this for no reason. They are essential in our oceans. In previous years, the decimation of shark population has caused the surrounding ecosystem to collapse, they are truly the 'boss' of our oceans.
You left school at 14. Any regrets about that? Do you plan to continue your education at some point?
No way. It wasn't without its hardships and loneliness and sacrifice, but it was the only way I could combine my passion with my education. I believe a large part of our world is kept from us at school, and that not everything we are taught we should believe or accept. Diving deeper into information is the reason I can look at sharks differently, the reason I am vegan, the reason I challenge people, laws and government. Leaving school is the best thing that's ever happened to me. I knew what I was passionate about; leaving school helped it happen. I would love to continue my education, but sitting through university to learn something I could teach myself about if I was passionate seems like a waste of time that could be better spent helping sharks at the moment, some people are cut out for the research, and that's great, but I want to be the person that takes their findings to the public, and starts action.
What do you want viewers to take away or do?
I wish I could answer this; I really don't know how to. I want them to feel the exact same way I did when I got in the water as a child and looked for my sharks, only to find they had been killed in a legal shark fishery, and I want them to take that feeling and use it to help sharks. Anyone can help sharks: don't eat them, fight the media, send a letter, it's all a huge help, for an animal that has been devoid of help for so long. And most importantly, question everything.
What are your plans going forward? What is the main focus of your mission?
The main focus of my mission is to end the legal shark fisheries inside the Great Barrier Reef. It is unnecessary and unjust, and I want to see it come to an end. My main focus at the moment though is what it's always been: collecting footage.
Are there other things you want to do in life?
Of course, a driver's license is a very exciting concept to me at the moment, but I have not yet had the chance to stop traveling and dedicate hours to it.