Twenty-one-year-old Madison Stewart considers sharks family. Growing up by Australia's Great Barrier Reef, she says she spent more time in the water with them than she did on land with humans. When she saw how rapidly they were disappearing, she felt compelled to act. Today, Stewart is a filmmaker and advocate, known to many as "Shark Girl." With the launch of our Blue York campaign, we reached out to her about her work.
Wildlife Conservation Society: For those who haven't experienced it, could you describe what it's like for you to swim near sharks?
Madison Stewart: People have this idea of sharks, that they are aggressive and vicious. Try swimming with them once, and your mind will be changed forever. It's a shell shock to see them for the first time and understand just how messed up our perception of them is. For me, swimming with sharks is the last real wild encounter. It's the one animal and one environment I can reach that our species cannot control and therefore when we are in the water with sharks we are no longer in control, and that is a humbling and rare thing.
WCS: Why did you decide to dedicate yourself to this issue?
MS: It was honestly a case of having no choice. I saw a change in my lifetime in the population of sharks I grew up diving with, and I wasn't about to sit back and let it happen. When the sanctuary you cherish and never imagined could be in danger suddenly changes at your feet it can shake your world, and the only reason you know my name is because bad things are happening to our oceans so quickly and dramatically, we have no choice but to dedicate our lives to it.
WCS: You speak about the negative impression many people have of sharks. What is it you want the public to understand about these animals?
MS: I need people to stop being so judgmental. Not cool! Frankly it's not ok to hate a species you have never encountered and know nothing about, especially when that fear and hatred leads to sharks being killed and no one fighting back against it. I need people to understand they are not as bad as we think. Of course, they are not harmless (yes we need to be careful around them). But they're important to our ecosystem and should be protected and cherished.