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Shark Girl: Changing Shark Fear to Fascination

Madison Stewart, known to many simply as “shark girl,” is an inspiring young woman with a passion to protect the creatures most people fear: sharks. She’s been diving with sharks since the age of twelve. Here she is feeding a group of Caribbean reef sharks.


Ernst Stewart


As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by sharks. My father introduced me to the ocean through books, documentaries and diving, and whenever we would see sharks on a dive in the Great Barrier Reef, it was always everyone's favorite part. There is pretty much no other animal in the ocean that demands so much respect from people.

I started diving with sharks when I was 12 years old. I am lucky enough to live close to the Great Barrier Reef, where there are beautiful sharks and spots for diving, and to have my dad teach me how to dive. Over many dives, I got to know the sharks living in the reef; I could recognize them by sight and learned their personalities. To me they always seemed like dogs or puppies playing in the water, and mostly they just wanted to go about their own business undisturbed.

But one day I went in the water and couldn’t find my sharks anywhere. These are sharks that I had spent my childhood with—and they had been caught and killed in a legal shark fishery. It was a life changing moment. Up until then, I thought that everything was safe on the Great Barrier Reef and that I'd have it forever. But I realized then, at age 14, that my place in the ocean was at risk, and that if I wanted a future here I'd have to fight for it.

From that day forward I knew I had to commit my life to protecting sharks. And the first step was to make other people see them as I do. Most people see sharks as killing machines, fiercely armed with sharp teeth and out for blood. But that's not true. Sharks are misunderstood more than any other creatures, to the point where the idea that they are evil man-eaters is contributing to their slaughter. Many of the misconceptions about sharks have to do with the way they are portrayed by the media, whether in scary movies like Jaws or during the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. TV and movie producers know what sells—dramatic shark bites and the ‘bloodthirsty’ spiel. But a lot of sharks' negative portrayal also has to do with the fact that most people don’t see them in the wild. That is why I wanted to make my own films that show the true nature of sharks: timid, fearful of people, and really they just want to be left alone.

Sharks are NOT what you may think, and I and many other people spend hours in the water with large sharks on a regular basis. They are the apex predators, meaning that they sit at the top of the food chain and are absolutely essential to the health of our oceans. The decimation of shark populations has caused the surrounding ecosystem to collapse in some places. Sharks are truly the ‘boss’ of our oceans.  

I focus a lot of my time on collecting underwater footage of sharks during my many dives with these majestic creatures. Sometimes you can't use words to describe it, and need to see it to believe. I hope that by sharing images of me and others diving with sharks, people will see that they are not bloodthirsty monsters and aren't out to attack people. I also focus my work on urging governments to stop allowing legal shark fisheries, specifically inside the Great Barrier Reef, and the practice of shark finning. I feel that it is unnecessary and unjust to kill these animals that are so important to their environment and I want to see it come to an end.

The desire for change, a few small wins, and an ongoing supply of passion for sharks and the natural world is what drives me. I don’t do anything out of hatred or anger, or because I hate the people fishing for sharks. I do it because I love these creatures. And I am lucky enough to be aware that one person can make a difference—something I had to prove to myself, and once didn’t believe.

I hope the people who watch Shark Girl feel the same way I did when I got in the water as a child and looked for my sharks: love for the animals and anger that they are being killed needlessly. I want to inspire people to take that feeling and use it to help sharks. These animals have been without help for so long, I think it’s about time we lend them a hand. 

Editor's Note: If you are in the Washington, D.C. area on World Ocean Day (Sunday, June 8th 2014) stop by the National Museum of Natural History to see the world premiere of the Smithsonian Channel's Shark Girl. See our World Ocean Day events page for more information about this and other events in the museum. 

Read more about sharks: 

Brian Skerry writes about Swimming With Sharks

5 Reasons to Revere, Not Fear, The Shark

Do Sharks Smell In Stereo?