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Madison Stewart is an Underwater Activist
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Madison Stewart is an Underwater Activist
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Madison Stewart is an Underwater Activist
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"For me this is about family honour, protecting what I was raised to value, against the ignorance of authorities and governments."
Conversations
5 June 2014

Madison Stewart is an Underwater Activist

Interview by Jessica Wilkinson

Madison Stewart is many things. She’s a conservationist, environmentalist, underwater cinematographer and active campaigner. But above all of that, Madison Stewart is irrefutably devoted. Her unwavering dedication and passion toward her cause is tangible from the moment we begin talking. So much so, it almost takes me aback. For someone at just twenty to not only hold such fervent passion but to be acting upon it as well, is an appreciated rarity.

 

Our conversation surrounds the shark cull in WA and as her answers unravel, her steadfast opposition to the cull tells the story of a deep set emotional connection toward the cause. Having grown up on the coast, the ocean is her second home and sharks are, quite simply, her family.

As the West Australian Government pushes for an extension on its controversial policy, Stewart is among those willing to take a stand and give voice to the majestic species that cannot speak for itself. Through her short films and documentaries, Stewart is actively challenging preconceived attitudes towards the oceans greatest predator and hopes to show the rarely documented side of this feared animal.

The battle she is fighting is not something she chose, it chose her. It is not just about the protest, it is not just about the cull.  For Stewart, this is about protecting her family and standing up for what she was raised to believe in.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

You’ve been spending a lot of time filming in Western Australia lately. Is that where you are now?

No, I’m actually in the US at the moment.

Oh, amazing. Are you there for work?

I am! I’m here to dive with oceanic white tips and also to promote my Shark Girl documentary, which is being released in June. I plan on introducing the other side of the Great Barrier Reef to America, the one where sharks are disappearing. I want to change the image of this beautiful, untouched marine sanctuary and expose what our government is allowing.

Obviously you’re very familiar with WA’s shark cull policy. How important is this to you?

This is my life. The oceans are my life. I grew up in the water around sharks. For me this is about family honour, protecting what I was raised to value, against the ignorance of authorities and governments.

There’s talk of a three-year extension of the current policy in WA. What do you think the ramifications will be—both to the sharks, and the underwater ecosystem—if it goes ahead?

The ramification of a continuation of the cull in the environmental sense alone would be devastating. Any loss of a slow growing apex predator, whose place in the food chain already means there are few of them, is automatically devastating. However with sharks, it tends to cause a cascade effect. In the past the removal of sharks has affected the entire ecosystem in ways that are often irreversible.

The scariest thing in reference to sharks is that the ramification of their absence in our oceans is unknown.

In the absence of knowledge, we must assume the worse.

This topic is getting a lot of news coverage and is widely protested. What is your recent footage trying to achieve that hasn’t been achieved already?

I aim to provide people with good quality footage of devastating things happening in our own waters. I’m constantly trying to film more and more, making sure we are there to capture anything tragic.

You’re obviously very passionate about this. What is it about the cull that you disagree with?

I disagree with everything about the cull. Not now, not ever, do we as a species have the right to kill other animals for our own comfort, for recreation or for fear.

The cull supports the indiscriminate killing of a species not implicated with recent attacks and it allows reinforcement of fear into the general public, blocking their ability to learn about sharks.

As such a staunch opponent, what would you say to the supporters of the cull?

I would first take a wild guess and say none of them have ever actually been swimming with a shark, and have no understanding of the species. If they did, they couldn’t take pride in the cull as a real protection method for them at the beach.

It’s important to point out that protection measures against sharks are a wonderful idea and I am not against it, but the cull is not one of those measures. You’re talking about a system that actually attracts sharks due to the lure other dead sharks. They come closer to shore when they otherwise may not have. The idea of killing any animal, especially one as magnificent as the shark, is archaic, ignorant and disgusting. If you were raised to believe it is your right, you were raised wrong.

When people try and argue that human life is more important, maybe those humans need to pick a different sport or recreation that isn’t in the water, and realise that their life would not exist without the natural world.

That’s an interesting point—we are in a sharks domain and home when we enter the ocean.

Exactly. The reality is that we share our recreational areas with sharks, they see us, hear us and smell us every day. Attacks do not occur because there was a shark there. They occur because of the hundreds that are there, one made a move on something in its hunting area that looked like potential prey.

So, what do you think should be the practice instead of culling?

The absence of the sharks cull could be filled with programs such a shark spotters who constantly patrol the beach as lookouts. Then, when a shark is sighted, an alarm system alerts people to get out of the water and wait for the shark to pass. It has been a long running, and so far successful, operation in South Africa. There are also more factors like banning live export ships whose mammal blood dumping practices are no doubt attributed to sharks being present.

I think the most obvious approach would be to talk about sharks in school, the way we do about snakes, rips and beach flags.

For most people, sharks don’t evoke positive feelings. What is it about them that you love? Do sharks show emotion, form relationships? How do you relate to them?

I relate to them because they are misunderstood, they demand respect and they are different, I’ve always been attracted to the “monsters.” I am only one of many people who interact with sharks, and devote their lives to sharks. We are like a strange breed of humans. Sharks have an amazing draw to them, it leaves you in awe. I love the fact that I can exist next to the oceans top predator.

They make me feel amazing in their presence, and I can see their personalities, their slight social movements, their behaviour, their cheekiness.

Honestly, I don’t understand how people could not love them, if Jurassic Park was real, wouldn’t you want to witness those dinosaurs?

From the other side of a very secure enclosure maybe. I certainly wouldn’t put myself in the same space as them. Same goes for sharks. I’m from WA and I have to say, I’m too scared to go in the water.

Sharks are not harmless, that’s for sure, but what actually makes any shark dangerous is the situation, not exactly the shark itself. I have had multiple calm and amazing experiences with six meter tiger sharks, but I’m sure those could have turned out different in murky water, if I was on the surface splashing around.

Are tiger sharks your favourite?

I love tiger sharks over all other species, their personalities and their beauty in the water is defining, nothing compares to them. They have a presence, they have a story to tell.

Okay, so the WA shark cull aside, what else are you working on?

I am working on any threat to sharks, mainly through my small films, and also preparing for the release of a documentary called Shark Girl, set to be released on TV. My main objective has always been to end the legal take of sharks inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and world heritage area, conducted by Australian commercial fishing vessels each year.

You don’t exactly have a stereotypical job—it’s not something you’d find in the pages of a career guide.  What made you get into this industry in the first place?

This is not an industry. An industry implies economic substance, if anything this ‘occupation’ is quite the opposite. It is for this exact reason I know I will be successful and have in the past. You cannot hire this kind of passion for a cause, and those on the opposing side do not have it.

I did not choose my involvement in this. I noticed a decline of sharks species in certain areas in my short lifetime, highlighting the necessity for me to fight back.

But of all the species that are under threat and need help, why sharks?

Because they need the most help, because I value them over all other species, because from birth they have been so ingrained in my life as siblings and family, that I have no real way to describe to you what started my fascination, its just always been there. Sharks need a voice more than any other animal, they are the unsung and misrepresented heroes of our oceans. I am actually unsure, if they will have a place in my future after what I have seen, and that terrifies me.

Would you ever be a cinematographer on dry land or is the ocean your home?

I could be a cinematographer on dry land, I’d rather pursue a normal occupation though. My involvement in film purely stems from a desire to find a medium through which I could spark the same amount of emotion I have for sharks in others, it was never form a desire to be a filmmaker. And yes, the oceans are my home. I was born into that environment, I was raised in the ocean, I live for the oceans.

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