This year, she was awarded the title of Australian Geographic’s Young Conservationist of the Year for her work with sharks, but at the age of 24-years-old Madison Stewart aka ‘Shark Girl’ isn’t taking a break to revel in her accolades. Instead she says it’s time to up the ante.
Madison's parents haven’t always been thrilled about her passion for sharks and conservation. “My mum could see my passion for the scary animals. She bought me many children’s books about whales in order to shift my focus and it clearly didn’t work,” Madison tells Australian Geographic.
As for Madison’s Dad, he just wasn’t sure if a life in conservation would be worth it. “He had this mentality that it would be a waste of my time and the people who didn’t agree with us weren’t worth my effort.”
But Madi’s childhood enthusiasm for dangerous animals has persisted well into adulthood, and she’s now concentrated her passion into effective conservation methods for one of the world’s most misunderstood animals. And she’s managed to change her Dad’s opinion along the way. “He’s changed over the years, seen what I’ve achieved and ate his words,” she says triumphantly.
It’s been just under a week since Madison received the AG Young Conservationist of the Year title, awarded to her by legendary shark expert Valerie Taylor, and she’s already eyeing off new goals.
“I want to make another documentary… I think it’s impossible to make conservation sound cool to youth and older generations with a scientific paper or a lecture, but a bit of radical music and the shot of a shark’s eye looking at you up and down… That’s where it happens.”
The documentary Blue, in which Madison features, premiered just last month, thrusting her into the limelight. “I hope people watch Blue and see some of the issues happening here in Australia. I hope they become offended that it’s happening under our noses, that is my biggest hope.”
(Image Credit: Juan Medina)
Grassroots activism and young people
Throughout the film, Madison, along with Valerie Taylor, encourage viewers to recognise that the actions of a single person can have a major impact in the world of conservation.
“We have a saying in Australia that my mother introduced me to — ‘NIMBY’ which stands for ‘not in my back yard’. It’s the idea that we need to establish control over what happens in our local community and this could not be more accurate,” she tells AG.
“I have now been to Indonesia, west Africa, Mexico, Fiji and other small nations to film shark fishing, but it all comes back to what’s for sale on the shovels at our local store. If we are looking for injustice or to make a stand, look no further than our own back yard.”
She says that by having a focus on local issues there’s more potential for young people to enact change.
“You can start with simple things like approaching local restaurants and fish and chip shops that sell flake, writing letters to government, pushing back against media that demonises sharks, educating the people around you and being a shining example that change is not only possible but fun.” And she says she’s here to help. “Write to me— reach out to me— I am here to help, I am taking it day by day as well so let’s figure this out together.”
Changing attitudes towards sharks
This grassroots approach to shark conservation is a tactic formulated by Madison to combat what she sees as the biggest threat to shark populations.
“Sharks are being killed for food, fins, medicine, and fun. There is no end to the threats they face. But the biggest of all these is the human mentality towards them, because this stops people from fighting for them,” she says.
“How much we love an animal ultimately dictates public pressure for protection and how much we we’ll let people exploit them. It’s a sad truth, but you don’t see dolphins coming under fishing pressure without mass public outrage… but to sharks we turn a blind eye.”
It’s difficult not to change your mind about sharks when you hear Madison speak about her encounters.
“If I had to pick one memorable moment underwater it would be the time I encountered a great hammerhead at 15 years old in the Bahamas. I was in the presence of two large tiger sharks and both of them fled the scene as soon as this massive hammerhead arrived,” Madison recounts.
“At first glance I thought I was looking at a whale, it was that large. Its head was as wide as I am tall. I had heard about great hammerheads reaching this size but never seen it. It literally swam straight past me and to this day I remember not feeling threatened for a second.”
Know your enemy
More recently, Madison has seen the value of sitting down with those who don’t exactly support her cause; listening to them and helping them understand her point of view.
“We can be far more effective with kindness towards our enemies. Having understanding for people has allowed me to develop friendships with shark hunters and fishermen and it’s taken me further than ever before and allowed me to enforce change from the inside out.
“My favourite project at the moment is directed towards a young boy named Maverick who is the son of an infamous shark hunter. I’m taking him diving with sharks for the first time in his life and hopefully making him see this animal in a different light so that when he takes the business over from his dad, he does more catch and release and less fishing sharks.”
(Image Credit: Doug Falter)
You can see more of Madison’s achievements in conservation HERE.