Madison Stewart, also known as Shark Girl, has come out of the water for her toughest challenge ever: changing the shark fin industry by empowering fishermen.
“Shark Girl” might sound like the name of a somewhat corny superhero, but for those who know Madison Stewart, it’s not an exaggeration. She began swimming with sharks when she was 12, started petitions and wrote letters to decision-makers regarding the illegal shark fishing trade when she was 14 and starred in her first documentary at age 18.
And now, two documentaries later, she is embarking on a new way of making a difference. Madison has turned her attention to the heart of the shark fin industry in Indonesia.
Project Hiu both educates commercial shark fishermen and offers them a new career within tourism. It’s a project that has Madison, for the first time, spending most of her time above water.
We met up with Madison (online) to talk about how to truly make a difference, how she overcame a fear of water and why she never talks about hope.
The following is a version of our conversation that has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Is it true that you’d rather swim with sharks than hang out with people?
Madison: Oh, you know, when I was a kid, my dad raised me to be around sharks and be in the ocean. And he also raised me to be very aware of the danger that comes from humans. So I grew up more scared of people than I was of sharks and, statistically, my dad was very right to raise me like that. I've always felt way more comfortable swimming in the water with sharks than being around people.
You know sharks can bite you, sharks can harm you, but at the end of the day, sharks are just trying to survive people. However, people will pretend to be your friend at first and then hurt you. They are far more dangerous and unpredictable than sharks.
Why do you think your father taught you that?
My dad was a university professor and he quit his job and he pulled me out of school to raise me on a sailboat instead. I was a kid and he wanted to go diving, take photos and everything else you can do in the ocean. That's what he cared about. So he basically just took me with him, made sure I was a certified diver and got me comfortable in the water. That's why I had such amazing experiences in the ocean growing up.
“I'm 27 years old now, and I can't even ride a push bike. My dad wouldn't let me ride a bicycle because it was too dangerous”
That sounds cool, and very complex?
Yeah, absolutely. I had some weird experiences. I'm 27 years old now, and I can't even ride a push bike. My dad wouldn't let me ride a bicycle because it was too dangerous. Yet, at the same time, he was letting me dive with sharks.
But my dad never encouraged my involvement in conservation because he didn't want me to waste time on people that didn't care about sharks. He just wanted me to enjoy sharks. But since then, he's seen what I have accomplished, and things have changed a lot. He’s very supportive of my mission and my work now.
Is there some kind of mutual agreement between you and the animal?
Yeah, I don't eat them. They don't eat me. It's quite easy to learn how to be in the water with a shark, but there are things you must learn. I wrote a document a while ago called “The Surfing Guide to Sharks” and it has pointers for people that are surfing with sharks.
There are simple things, like making eye contact with sharks is really good. Avoid murky water because they use that as an ambush. Avoid wearing shiny things because it looks like fish scales. Be careful about the time of day you're in the water. If it's dusk or dawn, the sharks tend to act differently. Some sharks will bite the water when they're angry, other sharks will put their fins down and arch their back.
We choose our places and our moments and who we go with. And there are safe environments where you can interact with sharks and then there are environments that aren’t safe. It's certainly different being on the surface as it is to being on their level on the ocean floor.
Could you explain, in a simple way, what sharks bring to our ecosystem?
Yeah, so imagine the ecosystem in the ocean like a classroom and all the students in a classroom would go crazy and terrorize the town if it weren't for the teacher. Sharks are the teachers. They are the kings of their environment and we need them for so many different reasons. For instance, there was a town who got rid of a lot of their great whites and it caused the population of seals to boom, and it ruined their tourism because seals were coming up on the beach and pooping everywhere and chasing away people. A lot of people think sharks eat all the fish. That is bad, because their importance to the ecosystem is pretty phenomenal.
How did Project Hiu come about?
I was taken to the worst shark fin market in Indonesia when I was with a documentary crew. Afterwards I just thought about what I could possibly do to help. I found inspiration from a story about fishers in Mexico that were fishing for sharks. But then the whales started passing through and they changed their boats to run whale-watching tours.
I thought to myself, “What if we did this in Indonesia?” Project Hiu was the first time in my life that I have had to convince fishers to work with me. First time I did anything in Indonesia to approach an issue happening to sharks without being in the water. I didn't have any official training, no scientific degree or anything. This is just purely off my own desire to do something different. In this world of conservation, we base so many of our actions on hatred, and for once, I just wanted to do something that was based on compassion.
“all the students in a classroom would go crazy and terrorize the town if it weren't for the teacher. Sharks are the teachers”
What’s the project status at the moment?
There are about 52 boats in the village that fish for sharks and I've managed to hire 6 of them. It’s a very small dent, but it's a big dent considering that we are still very new and we're coming up against huge obstacles. There is one boat that we have fully working for us now, which means it doesn't fish for sharks anymore. We've made a lot of developments within the community itself as well, which helps us to make movements against the shark fin trade. So establishing ourselves as people that can be trusted was the biggest and hardest step. And now that that's happened, I think we can grow a lot more. We just need the funding.
What does this new tourism consist of?
So basically, a trip means you come out on the actual boat that was fishing for sharks and you're working with the shark fishers. They're going to be the ones taking you in the water. They're going to be the ones taking you snorkeling, surfing or rock climbing. It's just running tourism operations from the boats.
You’ve written about how you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that made you afraid of water. How are you able to still do what you do?
For me, it was like I was literally thrown back in the water. I had to do all sorts of things and I would just have panic attacks daily. I think that's another reason why Indonesia works so well because I could help sharks, but I didn't have to be in the water. Everybody looks at me like, “Oh, a project here! You're saving sharks and you're saving the fishermen,” but nobody understands that it's actually them saving me. I got a way to do what I want to do without being terrified every day.
I'm a lot better in the water now. I can do things that I probably couldn't do a couple years ago, and slowly getting better. But it is still a challenge, and I don't know if that will ever go away. It's just something that I live with now, I guess.
I had spent a lot of time terrified of water, not knowing that I had PTSD. That's why I tried talking about it openly, because I think a lot of people live in our society without being aware that they have this condition.
But so many times I feel like it's easier to not talk about it because it's, like, you don't want to educate people all the time.
Has it changed your perspective on how you deal with your passion?
Yeah, and you know what? There are so many people helping sharks by swimming with them. Nobody is doing the hard shit. Nobody's going and filming sharks being killed. Nobody is talking to the fishers. I was just getting sick of that and I was like, you know what? I'm just I'm going to have to go and do the hard shit because no one else is.
Could you just explain your view on the word “hope”?
I think that hope is a surrender. When you hope for something, you're basically admitting defeat and you're leaving control behind when realistically you want to be fighting for something that you want to change. You don't want to hope that it's going to get better. The word “hope” is for people that are powerless—and we are not powerless individuals. We have so much power to affect the environment, that we have to save it.