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Madison Stewart is a woman on a mission — to save sharks. The 20-year-old Australian has been diving with them ever since she was a child.
“Nothing is more peaceful to me than being in the water with them. I spent more time of my childhood with them than I did with people,” she told Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti.
But even within her lifetime, she’s been noticing how their numbers have dropped, which endangers not only them, but the ecosystems they inhabit. Since sharks are apex predators, at the top of the food chain, sharks help keep smaller predators in check.
Stewart’s efforts have been documented in the new film “Shark Girl,” which premieres on the Smithsonian Channel this Sunday.
On how she came to love sharks
“I never really remember falling in love with sharks. It’s just always been there. But, you know, I was introduced to all aspects of the ocean. It’s just that one animal that I fell in love with, and I guess one of the cool things is that people are scared of them, you know? They implant that fear into people that no other animal can do.”
On what swimming with sharks is like for her
“It feels like being a superhero. It’s more normal to me than anything else, you know? You know, I only learned to ride a push bike two years ago because, my dad never let me have one as a kid, because apparently it was too dangerous to ride a bike on the road. So, you know, stuff like that is abnormal to me, but swimming with sharks — it’s like playing with your puppy dog. I mean, even there’s a scene in the film where I’m feeding sharks and everyone’s, like, dramatic about the scene where a shark accidentally bites my hand, and I’ve got chain-mail on. But that’s what happens when you’re playing tug-of-war with your dog and your dog accidentally bites your hand.”
On what she wants people to know about sharks
“It’s fine to be scared of sharks. All I ask from people is respect and understanding of the species. Your fear does actually have an impact on what happens to them, so — you know, I think it’s cool to be scared of them. It’s cool that these animals that we can’t control still exist in our oceans, you know, living dinosaurs. It’s okay to be scared of them. We can still want to help them, you know?”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. Let's talk about sharks. The animals have such a bad rap in popular culture that we don't even have to play the "Jaws" theme music because it's probably already going in your head. But for 20-year-old Australian Madison Stewart, sharks are family. She's loved the sharks of the Great Barrier Reef ever since she was a child, and at the age of 14 she decided to devote herself full-time to shark conversation. But as a new documentary shows, replacing that terrifying "Jaws" image with the truth about these magnificent creatures is not easy. The film is called "Shark Girl." It premieres this Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel. And joining us from NPR in New York is the shark girl, herself. Madison Stewart, welcome.
MADISON STEWART: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: First of all, I mean, we see clearly from "Shark Girl" that you've had this love of sharks ever since you were just a kid. And you started diving when you were what - 12 years old?
STEWART: Yeah, 12.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so what about sharks in particular captured your imagination?
STEWART: I never really remember falling in love with sharks. It's just always been there. But you know, I was introduced to all aspects of the ocean. It's just that one animal that I fell in love with. And I guess one of the cool things is that people are scared of them. You know, they implant that fear into people that no other animal can do that.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, maybe that's exactly why, I guess, people are wondering why you felt drawn to be close to them - to spend as much time in the water with them because like you said, most people kind of respond by wanting to swim away.
STEWART: Yeah, I guess. You know, when you hear that alarm at the beach and people want run out of the water, I want to get in. It's because I grew up with an unbiased view of sharks, and I got to meet them, and I got to see what they're really like. And nothing is more peaceful to me than being in the water with them. I spent more time of my childhood with them than I did with people, so a shark interaction was more comfortable for me I guess.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, let's talk a little bit about sort of the lengths that you go to, or have gone to, in order to spend as much time as you can, you know, with these honestly, truly magnificent creatures because you decided to be home-schooled when you were - what, 14? Is that right - 14 years old?
CHAKRABARTI: So you could devote yourself more to shark conservation?
STEWART: Yeah, my dad and I made a joint decision that I would leave school and start home-schooling, and we would devote our life to doing what we wanted to do which was diving with sharks. But it was just after that - and we went back to the spots I saw as a kid, and that's when I noticed a decline in shark population. So that's when things really kind of turned for me.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, so hang on to that thought about the decline in the population for a moment because - digging a little bit more here for you to share the physical, mental, emotional experience of what it's like to be in the water with them.
CHAKRABARTI: I mean, can you describe to us that we - you know, when you put on that gear, and you dive in and suddenly - I don't know. You've probably encountered so many species by now. What does it actually feel like?
STEWART: It feels like being a superhero. It's more normal to me than anything else. You know, I only learned to read a push bike about two years ago 'cause my dad never let me have one as a kid 'cause apparently it was too dangerous to ride a bike on the road. So, you know, stuff like that is abnormal to me, but swimming with sharks - it's like playing with your puppy dog. I mean, even there's a scene in the film where I'm feeding sharks and everyone's, like, dramatic about the scene where a shark accidentally bites my hand. And I've got chain mail on, but that's what happens when you're playing tug of war with your dog, and your dog accidentally bites your hand.
CHAKRABARTI: Except, I would note, that most dogs don't have the ability to completely crush the bones in your hand...
CHAKRABARTI: ...Or have teeth that cycle through for their entire lives, right?
STEWART: Yeah, I guess.
CHAKRABARTI: But I take your point in terms of your relationship with these animals. Now, let's talk about the fact for just a moment that sharks are among the most prehistoric creatures in the oceans, right?
STEWART: Yes, they're more than 400 million years old.
CHAKRABARTI: I mean, that fact in and of itself is remarkable. And it makes the additional fact that 90 percent or so of the world's sharks have disappeared just tragic to me.
STEWART: Yeah, sharks have survived major extinctions on this planet before, so it's really a testament to how dangerous we are as a species if in the last hundred years we've managed to nearly wipe them off the oceans.
CHAKRABARTI: And so this 90 percent reduction is exclusively due to humans fishing them and killing them?
STEWART: Yes. And we take a hundred million sharks a year. I mean, they're killed for things like shark-finning and just shark fisheries and in general people's hatred of them. And they're not like fish. You know, they grow like dolphins. They take a really long time to reach the proper age where they can have pups. And then they take a long time to pop and have few young. So they're not the kind of animal that just bounces back straight away. And there are vast areas of our ocean that have lost their sharks for good.
CHAKRABARTI: In the film there's a moment from marine biologist Richard Fitzpatrick who talks about the fact that sharks - because they are basically other than humans - they're at the top of the food - of the marine food chain - and this vast reduction of the number of sharks in the oceans has really had an effect on marine ecosystems - basically the loss of these apex predators. So let's listen to what Richard Fitzpatrick has to say about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHARK GIRL")
RICHARD FITZPATRICK: Removal of apex predators out of an ecosystem has dramatic effects. It's like driving down the highway with a blindfold on and taking your hands off the steering wheel. You won't crash straightaway, but a crash is going to happen.
CHAKRABARTI: In your dives have you seen what the effect of the loss of the sharks has had on marine ecosystems?
STEWART: Yes. And this is what really drew me to conservation. It was first the sharks went, and then the fish went, and then the reef got covered in algae, and now it's almost impossible to find life in some areas. I had read about it, but I never truly knew how devastating it could be - especially to happen in my lifetime. I was 14 years old.
CHAKRABARTI: Fourteen, wow.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we can hear your passion for the conservation of these animals loud and clear. But Madison, if I could, I do want to just ask you a couple more questions about how you actually interact...
STEWART: Of course.
CHAKRABARTI: ...With sharks while you're in the water because, I mean, in the film, we see you feeding them in the Bahamas with shark expert Stuart Cove. And you also do this thing. I mean, you basically, like - I don't know if this is the right way to describe it, but you charm them. I mean, Stuart says you put them into a state of tonic immobility.
STEWART: Yes. I don't think there is any way to really describe it.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, what is that?
STEWART: Yeah, it's a beautiful interaction with sharks. No one really knows why it happens. It's still a scientific mystery, but flipping a shark upside down often reverses its center of gravity, releases serotonin into the brain. And the same is replicated in tonic when we've got metal on our hands and we're rubbing the sensory organs on the from of the shark's nose. And that kind of sends them into this overdrive. And it's something we can only do with sharks that we've been feeding for, like, 30 years, and they're kind of used to human interaction. So we use it to get hooks out of the mouths of sharks. And it's my favorite thing about those feeds - is putting sharks in a tonic and filming it because, you know, you see someone with a shark in their hands, rubbing it like you would your dog's belly - it's really quite amazing to be able to see that.
CHAKRABARTI: I can only imagine what it would be like to experience that. We actually have a little bit of tape from Stuart Cove describing how you do it - how you put sharks into that sort of charmed state of immobility. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STUART COVE: You have to get up under its nose, and you got to tickle it. And while you're getting into the position to tickle its nose, they're trying to bite. So it's very difficult and so it's - learning that technique and getting it where you're not going to get yourself hurt is tricky.
CHAKRABARTI: I think tricky is a petty good understatement, right? It's not something you'd recommend amateur divers to do.
STEWART: Absolutely not.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. In the film we also see you and Stuart giving first aid to sharks and also visiting places where shark watching rather than fishing them is becoming a growing tourist attraction. Do you think that we can overcome what, you know, as you described earlier, is in a lot of people - just a primal, if irrational, fear. I mean, that's kind of what drives a lot of people's attitudes about sharks.
STEWART: Yeah, you know, that and "Jaws."
CHAKRABARTI: And "Jaws," yeah.
STEWART: It's fine to be scared of sharks. All I ask from people is respect and understanding of the species. Your fear does actually have an impact on what happens to them. So, you know, I think it's cool to be scared of them. It's cool that these animals that we can't control still exist in our oceans - you know, living dinosaurs. It's okay to be scared of them. We can still want to help them, you know?
CHAKRABARTI: Madison Stewart is the shark girl at the center of the new documentary which airs on the Smithsonian Channel this Sunday. Madison, thank you so much.
STEWART: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: We've got a great slideshow of Madison working with sharks at our website, hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.