Overcoming Fear With Smithsonian Channel’s Shark Girl

June 13, 2014

Growing up by the Great Barrier Reef, Madison Stewart learned to love the sea, but she always had a special affinity for sharks.  She quickly made it her goal to protect these incredible, misunderstood creatures, using a video camera to chronicle her journey. Smithsonian Channel now presents Shark Girl, a documentary about Madison’s efforts.  Madison took a few minutes to speak with DIRECTV about her work, along with how we can all do our part to protect sharks worldwide.

What are the primary misconceptions that people have about sharks?

That they are bloodthirsty mindless killers. People think that because a shark attack happens, that means there was a shark in the water that day, but quite the opposite is true, sharks are ALWAYS there, they hear us, smell us, feel our splashing through the water. Attacks occur when enough sensory factors line up and make a shark think we could be a potential meal, such as the smell of dead fish from nearby, the splashing around that makes us look like an injured fish. Sharks kill an average of 12 people worldwide a year, yet humans kill more than 100 million sharks a year.

Why are people so afraid of sharks?

It has a lot to do with the fact sharks are a mystery to most people. They are not an animal you can go and see in the wild that easily. The only introduction people have to sharks is JAWS and Shark Week, which are dramatizations of an animal that in reality does not live up to its reputation.

In the documentary, we can see a JAWS poster hanging on your wall. Do you like shark thrillers, even though they could be cited as reasons why people have unrealistic fears of sharks?

I consider myself a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker, I have to appreciate the power JAWS had on people. It was devastating to the species, but I love to watch it, and see how sharks were actually portrayed. It is fascinating that it could have had such an effect on a population. Jaws was a plastic shark, and with some clever editing, it is a testimony to the power of films.

How many dive hours have you logged? Do you even keep track at this point?

I do keep track, I have logged close to 600!

We get to see a shark actually bite you on the hand in the documentary. How much did that hurt, and what’s the worst injury you’ve endured in your travels?

No way was that the worst injury, I’ve hurt myself more on my skateboard that I have underwater. That bite did not hurt at all, in fact I get bitten several times when feeding those sharks, can you blame them, I’m throwing dead fish at them and they grab it with their eyes closed. It’s expected they will occasionally miss and bite me, that’s why we wear chainmail. They do not bite down hard, its like playing with a puppy, and the metal shark suit prevents any real damage to the skin from the sharp teeth.

What can we do in our daily lives to help protect sharks, along with sea life in general?

I think the biggest thing, is don’t eat sharks. I know people can relate to this in Australia, but in the U.S. I was wondering how much the general population can relate to that. Since being here I have seen shark for sale in three different stores! They are in our supermarkets, our pet food, our fast food, our medicine and even our make up. So keep an eye out for and avoid shark fins, shark liver oil, shark cartilage, flake or shark meat. Sharks are really no different to pandas and rhinos, they are in trouble, and their presence on our shelves should not be accepted in our society.

Shark Girl premieres Sunday, June 15 at 8/7c on Smithsonian Channel