Madison Stewart, “Shark Girl,” has been diving with the sharks since the age of 12 in the Great Barrier Reef and she loathes the hype propagated in movies from Jaws to Sharknado that these mysterious beasts are “mindless blood thirsty killers.” (You can read the full story here.)
Here is the transcript from my interview with Madison, conducted by email. My questions are in bold It has been lightly edited:
* What are the biggest misconceptions about sharks among the general public?
That they are mindless blood thirsty killer responsible for the attack of hundreds of people a year, sharks kill an average of 12 people a year and each year we kill more thank 100 million sharks! When I get in the water with sharks they don’t see a human, turn around and come and try to attack me. In fact most of the encounters I’ve had, and especially with the big sharks they actually turn around and run away from me! The only time we see sharks in the media is when an attack has occurred, and the media loves to play with the ‘monster’ spiel when it comes to sharks, when really, they have more to fear from us, an they are not even close to being among the animals responsible for allot of human deaths.
* Are you ever scared when you are close with sharks? Can you describe your feeling?
I have never had a feeling of fear in the water with sharks, never had a physical reaction of a stronger heart beat near them, it’s a totally calm and normal feeling for me. I keep my eye on the one big shark in the water and it keeps its eye on me, we both maintain caution for each other. You get in the car you put your seatbelt on, when you get in the water with sharks, its what you know, and how well you set up your dive gear that will protect you. When In the water with lots of sharks around me, it’s very peaceful interaction, and when the sharks bump me or accidentally nibble my hand while trying to get to the bait it’s almost a fun roughhousing scenario, I find it amusing. I am not brave or an adrenalin junkie, I just know sharks, and simple understanding of their habits and their personalities (which change between species) is enough to make me feel comfortable and alert when underwater with sharks.
*Why are sharks so important for the world’s ocean system?
Sharks are to the oceans what garbage trucks are to a city, without them you either get a drastic reduction of certain spices or an influx of others. They keep everything in balance. There was a small town on the coast of America that over fished their territorial sharks, and that lead to their entire crayfish industry on which the town relied being destroyed, this because the stingrays sharks used to eat had no predators and their numbers grew.
* Why did you think of Australia’s plan to cull sharks?
I disagree with everything about the cull, the indiscriminate killing of a species not implicated with the recent attacks, the fact that it allows the reinforcement of fear into the general public which blocks their ability to learn about sharks as the government feed the ignorance and the idea we can control the oceans And last of all, not now, nor ever, do we as a species, have the right to kill other animals for our own comfort, for recreation, for fear. I can make a case about poodles being incredibly dangerous dogs and it would have the same validity as our Premiere statement towards sharks. We enter the water every day and hundred of people see hundred of sharks, it’s a normal occurrence and we take that risk ourselves. Even worse, culling would not do anything to stop attacks. 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 reaction with 6 meter tiger sharks, I’m sure those could have turned out different in murky water if I was on the surface splashing around.
* What else am I missing that you would like to tell me about?
Imagine people were coming after your pet dog, who wouldn’t hurt a butterfly, but has sharp teeth, this is my case with sharks. I understand that Jaws and the media will control the way we think about sharks. I don’t need people to love them, but I think they deserve our respect, and I am positive that I am no longer able to help them, it is now up to the general public and even the people who live in the desert, to voice their opinions. With putting pressure on government and corporations, with people jumping on board, we can change the future of sharks.