Financial Review | For shark conservationist Madison Stewart, body armour is all in a day's work

Filmmaker and shark conservationist Madison Stewart, 2017's Australian Geographic Young Conservationist of the Year, says nothing compares with being in the presence of evolutionary perfection. She answers our Time Out questionnaire.

How long have you been scuba-diving?

I bubbled for the first time when I was nine, and was officially certified on my 12th birthday (due to age restrictions that was the earliest I could be certified). Now 24, I've been diving ever since.

How often do you dive?

Not nearly enough. But I never go more than three months without a dive. If I'm working, I dive up to five times a day.

How many dives have you logged?

I made a habit of logging all my dives when I started diving and wrote in detail about more than 700. I lost this habit, however, and now I have to guess, but I'd say more than 1000.

How did you get into diving and underwater filming?

My father was the one who got me into diving. He discovered his passion for it and wanted me to be able to travel with him and be his dive buddy, so he made sure I was qualified as soon as possible. I got into filmmaking when I was 14. I left school to start home schooling, and the deal with my dad was that the money for school fees would go towards my underwater camera instead.

The self-confessed "Shark Girl" has done more than one thousand dives. "I love scuba-diving. It's like flying." Supplied

Why do you do it?

I love scuba-diving. It's like flying, and it's my way of being in the underwater world I love. I know a lot of people love free-diving because you don't need equipment, but I also love that side of scuba-diving. I love the discipline in equipment setup and having to know the physiological aspects of what diving does to your body.

Your favourite destination?

Right now, I'm obsessed with the Bahamas. I spent a lot of time diving there as a kid and it's like an underwater playground with shipwrecks and clear water.

Describe the dive you most enjoyed.

It is hard to pick just one, but I would have to say a dive I did off an isolated reef when I was 15 years old. Halfway through the dive a huge tiger shark launched out of the blue at me, obviously very curious. It didn't stay long. It was my first encounter, and a rare and beautiful moment.

What qualifications do you need to be a diver for exploration or conservation?

Diving qualifications are relatively easy to obtain, but I suggest if you are serious about diving, do more of the courses, especially the rescue course where you learn about the safety aspects. As for conservation, all you need is a little passion and conviction.

Do you have a background in film?

I once considered going to film school, but instead I decided to just practise and learn from some very experienced underwater cinematographers. My mentor when I was young was an excellent underwater filmmaker who produced television documentaries. Mostly, I just washed his dishes, but I did learn a lot about cameras. [Stewart also takes part in the marine conservation documentary Blue, released last year].

Do you have a set role on a dive?

It depends on the dive. Usually, I just try not to get lost – getting lost is my specialty.

What breathing mix do you use?

I use air and sometimes nitrox.

What is the deepest dive you have undertaken?

I once dived to 56 metres.

What is your longest dive?

My very first rebreather [recycled gas] dive in the ocean was two hours long. We spent most of that time at 30 metres. It was amazing. I was so excited that I ignored the cold and almost got hypothermia.

Describe some of the conditions you dive in.

I've dived in almost no visibility, raging currents, with failing equipment and angry sharks. I've always thought that diving in bad conditions makes you a better, more experienced diver.

Any serious injuries or catastrophes in the water?

I am lucky enough to have never been seriously injured on a dive, but I have had decompression sickness. I suffered joint pain and a skin rash after a trip where we were completing a film shoot for my first documentary. I was sick and we were diving five times a day and it caught up with me. It was an excellent lesson for me about knowing my own limits.

Do you need special equipment?

Depends on what we are doing. Usually the only thing that changes is different wetsuits for the water temperature. I've had to change the colour of my fins and other gear in the past because certain colours can attract unwanted attention from sharks. Sometimes we use full-body chain-mail suits to protect against small shark bites – not often, though.

Favourite thing about swimming with sharks?

There is nothing that compares to being in the presence of such evolutionary perfection. It's a privilege to be in the water with sharks.

Your advice for other divers swimming with sharks?

Choose a good operation to take you. Unfortunately, there are some out there doing the wrong thing, which can be dangerous. It is ideal when you have someone experienced who also cares about the sharks.

lifeandleisure@afr.com.au