Sharks are impressive animals deserving of respect: an interview with Madison Stewart

Madison Stewart has been producing some amazing films about diving with sharks. She has been diving with and handling large sharks since before her teens, and is still in her late teens now. She is enthralled with the beauty and power of these animals that so many are terrified of ever seeing, and convened for their future survival in our oceans.

Most people don’t feel comfortable being close to large sharks unless there is glass between them like those folk in the Aquarium in Darling Harbour, Sydney

Q. Madison, what was your reaction when you first saw a shark while diving?

A. Excitement, astonishment, realisation in my own understanding for these creatures… and that fear wasn’t even on my mind.

Q. How and why did you start handling sharks?

A. I don’t actually handle sharks apart form the shark feeds where not handling them is impossible because you get so close. However I do film a lot of shark handling situations, because I know this does not harm the shark, and is often a relevant factor in research, education and filming interactions to show people the true nature of sharks is far from what they learnt from jaws.

Q. What made you start getting concerned about the disappearance of shark from our waters?

A. I was only 14 years old when my world literally fell from underneath me, places i had called home had lost their sharks and in turn the entire ecosystem had suffered and what was once vibrant reefs full of fish life became algae covered rubble. So when I realised not only how quickly it could happen, but also the fact that public fear of sharks was a huge factor, I realised the severity of the situation. It was not only what I had seen, but because it happened in my lifetime.

Q. Of course many people find it difficult to see past the fear when they think about sharks, sometimes so extreme that they either stick to swimming pools rather than going into the sea, or wanting all sharks eliminated. We are understandably  afraid of traffic accidents as well, but rather than ban all motorised vehicles on the road we learn how best to avoid accidents. The same with horse-riding – many people have been badly injured or killed by falling off horses or being kicked by them, but many (including myself) still ride horses, but they probably feel they have more control of the situation and can learn to understand the horses they interact with, whereas they see shark attack as something that just happens unpredictably.  Maybe if people understood how to lower the risk of shark attack they wouldn’t panic quite so much. You tell us you have been close to many sharks for many years without ever being threatened. Apart from not attracting sharks with blood, such as spear-fishers might inadvertently do, what is your advice to anyone who is  diving and  sees a  shark?

A. There is nothing abnormal about fearing sharks, even if it is unjustified. I believe a big part of this comes from the fact most people have never seen one for themselves, its that initial encounter where you see this sometimes huge creature labeled to be a man-eater run from you where people loose that fear, but when we have only attack stories and jaws to base our understanding off, its bound to create fear. It never ceases to amaze me that in school in Australia I remember being taught about the waves, rips, the dangers of the surf, but never taught about the fact we go in the hunting ground of an apex predator. What people should know is that sharks look for injured creatures, which is what humans look like. but not only this, most of the sharks that are responsible for attacks on humans are species that attack from underneath, watching and waiting for sometime first while we splash around looking like injured fish, they hunt in dusk, dawn, night-time. Their hunting will be sparked by the smell of dead fish (they can smell human blood but the belief they react to it is not true) and muddy water, for example if its been raining, is an advantage on their senses and they use this bad vis to hunt. At the same time its important to know that hundreds of sharks see humans every day, hear them, smell them, but don’t react to them, so just because there was an attack, doesn’t mean that there was a shark in the water that day, they are always there, it just means that one made a mistake. My advice for anyone diving (depending on the situation) is take a picture, and enjoy, diving is different to being on the surface, your under there with them, they see you as another predator. Its a hard question for someone who seeks dives with sharks to answer haha, all the sharks I have seen in their natural state have run from us, the only real and long encounters I have had were in the presence of food used to attract the sharks.

Q. And what about swimmers generally?  And kayakers?  What should they avoid doing to lower the possibility of attracting the attention of sharks? 

A. You don’t walk around a dangerous street at night alone waving $1000 in your hand, but spear fishermen carry dead fish with them. Anyone who goes in the oceans must accept that its the sharks home, and we have no jurisdiction and no real control over what happens aside form the obvious… don’t spill fish blood or guts into the water, keep your speared fish in the boat, don’t go when its too murky or at the wrong times… treat sharks like the surf, potentially dangerous at times. As well as this we can be realistic about out chances, and the fact its proven we are more likely to die form being hit by lightning.

Q. What are the thoughts on the shark deterrents promoted on

A. The shark shield is a bit of a controversy, but hey- it beats shark nets or culling pandaemonium, and i believe used commercially and by those intentionally going in dangerous situations. it doesn’t kill the sharks, its probably an unnecessary paranoid addition to involvement in the oceans, but there are allot worse things happening to these creatures to focus on.

Q. You say during the past decade you’ve seen ecosystems collapse because of the over-fishing of sharks. Would you like to elaborate on this?

A.The sharks in large numbers control the fish that eat other fish, in some ecosystems they even control the growth of the sea grass beds by preying on the animals that eat it, causing their movement to change giving the grass a chance to grow. The have an unreal and delicate impact on their surroundings, they are in our oceans for a reason, and although fished like any other fish, they grown and mate like mammals, so they have the potential to be wiped out very quickly. This has already been seen in many areas of the oceans. My experience comes form within the Great Barrier Reef and certain populations of sharks have declined by 97% in some areas as new scientific research shown. “sharks inhabiting Australia’s great Barrier Reef are in decline due to overfishing” (JCU research, September 2011). As well as the scientific background i found on these declines, it is visible in the areas i knew, and through the oceans by many others. 90% of the sharks and other big fish have gone from our oceans, this is not what they looked like 100 years ago, this is not what they looked like 10 years ago.

Q. I’ve been surprised to see restaurants and seafood shops  in Australia still selling shark fin soup or the raw shark fins, and I never enter one that does. Do you think it would be useful for other restaurants, the ones that don’t sell it, to proudly use that as a selling point, the way many now promote ‘no MSG’)?  I think some restaurants in Singapore now do this.

A. This is happening, and there are many projects beginning where promotion of being ‘fin free’ is something worn by restaurants with pride, unfortunately its still a big trade, and there are many many restaurants and people who eat in them who do not know the relevance of supporting such a trade, or that the fins are taken from a creature that is thrown back in the ocean still alive to die painfully. Australia’s contribution to the export of shark fins behind closed doors is also a concern. But to have these stickers in many more windows promoting they do not serve shark fins would be a great movement, and for people to know what this means, and choose to eat there because of this, consumers never realise their power 🙂

Q. Do you know if there are any regulations as to how the fins are obtained for restaurants in Australia? For instance, is there some accreditation that tell us sharks have been harvested for the whole body, killed humanely and the fin used along with everything else, rather than the cruel and wasteful practice of just slicing the fin from a live sharks and dumping it back in the water? If so, does our government ban the use of non-accredited product?

A. The black market for shark fins is second only to the drug trade, legal and licensed boats in australia still participate in the illegal shark finning and fin trade of endangered species, only last week a shark washed up at Evans head alive with its fins cut off.
The fishery i have been working against for a while now is the East Coast Inshore FinFish Fishery, and it consists of around 200 commercial gill net vessels operating to target sharks within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area, as long as the body is kept the fins can be exported (and are worth a lot of money whereas the body is not), this means our GBR sharks are ending up in asian countries as part of shark fin soup, legally. The more than 400 species of sharks are copping hatred form the apx. 5 implicated on attacks with humans, and in turn our oceans are suffering. Shark finning is illegal in Australia, so when the body is sold (27 different species are sold under the one name at Woolworth supermarket in Australia) and as ‘flake’ then the fins are processed separately and used here and overseas.

Q.Conservationists seem a bit divided on the idea of tours that have people going underwater in cages and luring sharks such as the great white close to them with baits. On one hand it provides an economic incentive to protect sharks for the tourist trade, but some argue that it may make the sharks associate humans with food. What are your thoughts on this?

A. I don’t think it does, of course i am making an educated assumption, but no research has proved this yet. However these sharks are not dumb, many people think they bite the cage to ‘get the humans inside’ but they are just picking up the electric field off the metal and getting curious. In realist terms, we take a few hours out of their day to show them to people, and then they go back to being the wild animals they are, who were in that area hunting seals anyway. I do not think we are ‘associating them with people’ if anything, we could argue that fishermen associate boats with dead fish and attract sharks to any boat.

Q. How many others now go diving with you and stroke sharks? I assume you’re not advising everyone to try it.  Do you think there could be a danger that some diving tourists might hear about this and try to do the same but because of their inexperience give the sharks the wrong signals and agitate them, or not read the sharks’ own behaviour correctly before approaching them? Even Steve Irwin, with all his experience, didn’t realise how edgy the rays were that day.

A. I am not advertising people to try it, these sharks are fed everyday and have a connection to the few people that get to perform the ‘tonic’ on them, and it is an amazing thing to witness and often helps researches take samples and remove hooks from the sharks mouths. What happens it a stimulation of the electrical sensory system on their snout when the feeders run their hands over their nose, sending them into a trance. Divers that want to try this would never get close enough to be able to do it, and here the dives are well regulated and not just anyone can do it. But yes, recently i took my mother and a good friend to come see this with me, and they got to touch a shark whilst in tonic, and love it. my mother who describes herself as ‘from the jaws era’ always loved them but had some apprehension, is now completely sold on shark diving. What happened to steve irwin was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, factors like the stingrays behaviours are very readable for people who know what to look for, and other times, if you go in this environment and push your luck, things happen. This can happen with sharks, but it can also happen with dogs, even bees, so singling out marine life as unusually dangerous is unfair, it requires the same amount of respect and caution as others.

Q. Are there some countries that seem to be finding a better compromise than Australia between protecting swimmers and protecting sharks?

A. we have pandemonium and shark nets- we are very far behind other countries. Shark nets merely attract sharks because they catch turtles, whales, dolphins and stingrays, then they die and rot, like ringing the dinner bell, and most of the sharks caught are actually leaving inside the nets, heading back out to sea. If you look really close at the stats on the east coast, attack have increased since the implementation of the shark nets!
Interactions with sharks in Australia are unavoidable, we are a population of beach goers and coastline inhabitants, we share this with sharks, no amount of killing them or shark nets will ever change this. Other countries are still using shark nets and ordering culls, but this is changing now. As well as a growing awareness, countries are creating shark sanctuaries, where the overall killing of sharks is illegal! Even china has banned the serving of shark fin soup at government meetings- a huge thing for sharks!!! In Australia, our laws and protection of sharks will never change until our attitude towards them does.

Q. Do you have any further thoughts on how to achieve a better understanding of sharks in our community?

A. On average one person dies in Australia from a shark attack each year. Each year 100 million sharks are killed by humans… and its not just the people fishing them, its our fear of them that is allowing government to profit from killing them with no reaction from the public. This kind of thing would never happen to dolphins, and we need to develop a realistic view of sharks, the european honey bee kills 10 people a year in Australia.
For example, culling Great Whites would never work because they are migratory, there is almost no chance of finding the shark actually responsible for the attacks, and we know going in the ocean with sharks is not a harmless activity, so why do we react when someone is harmed? The reason these unusual attacks in WA are occurring is because of a dead whale carcass that is ‘chumming’ the waters with the smell and attracting sharks, but it doesn’t help the media circus date to admit these kind of facts. We are losing out sharks in Australia, and in turn or ecosystem, and its only the people who fear then who can change who will make a difference. Understand their important to our oceans, and look past jaws and the media stories to the reality of a beautiful creature that is being brought down by the oceans worst predator, humans. Sharks attack people in the oceans in unfortunate situations, but its far more dangerous driving to the beach.

Some pages Madison suggests readers can check out:

send this letter to stop legal shark fishing inside the Great Barrier Reef:

Man eating shark:

The australian anti shark finning alliance (includes a wall of shame where you can see and dob in restaurants that serve shark fin soup)