The Girl Who Swims With Sharks

A new Smithsonian Channel documentary features “Shark Girl,” a fearless 20-year-old Aussie who has spent hundreds of hours swimming with the creatures

Madison Stewart, Shark Girl
Madison Stewart, Shark Girl Ernst Stewart

Twenty-year-old Madison Stewart is on a mission to protect animals that many people fear: sharks. Although Stewart dedicated her life to saving sharks at 14, her love of sharks began even earlier. “I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time,” says Stewart. “I remember at 8 years old, going to school with a petition that I had made up to get shark nets taken off our beaches.”

In Shark Girl, a new Smithsonian Channel documentary on the young Aussie that premieres this weekend, Stewart dives without cage protection in Australia, Mexico, Palau and the Bahamas. While learning how to feed a gang of sharks and remove fishhooks from their mouths, Stewart is nothing but excited. 

The day she turned 12, Stewart had her first dive with sharks and switched to being homeschooled at 14 so she could spend more time with the sea creatures. Making films about that would eventually turn into her vibrant YouTube channel. Upon noticing the decline in the shark population over the course of her many dives, Stewart found her calling: saving the sharks in the Great Barrier Reef.

Little takes precedence to her fight to save them; Stewart has been trying to get her driver's license for five years now, but between traveling for dives and documenting the controversial shark meat trade, she has yet to stay put long enough to get it. “I was too scared to order my own food at a restaurant when I was 16, but I’d been diving with large tiger sharks,” jokes Stewart.

Madison Stewart at a fishing co-op in Mexico. Kaufmann Productions Pty Ltd
Madison Stewart feeds Caribbean reef sharks. Ernst Stewart
Madison Stewart films a tiger shark. Ernst Stewart

The new documentary explains how sharks play a vital role in the ecosystems of reefs. Shark populations in the Great Barrier Reef are decreasing, and because they are apex predators that act like “police” in coral reefs their decline can cause problems; prey populations increase and creatures like clams, shellfish, and smaller animals on the reef take a beating.

Shark Girl also follows Stewart to Australian grocery stores as she buys samples of flake, or shark meat, on sale to test its mercury content. “What we’re allowed to fish and what we eat is incredible and it’s destroying our oceans,” says Stewart.

Happily diving with sharks, the young woman seems fearless, but there was a moment in the documentary Stewart felt a tinge of fear. “The scariest thing that happened to me in that entire film was me confronting the supermarket chain that was selling sharks,” recalled Stewart.

“I need millions and millions of people behind me and people don’t want to fight for an animal they’re scared of,” explains Stewart. When she began her fight to save sharks, she was confronted by hate mail. People would say, “There’s too many of them. Let’s kill them all.”

She sees her own conservation films as a response to these complainants.“I make films that change people’s minds," she says. "And as a filmmaker I want to believe that films have the power to change people’s minds."

The producers of Shark Girl have a similar goal in mind. By following the journey of a determined woman who loves sharks, the documentary also illustrates the importance of the predators to the ocean's ecosystem.

‘Shark Girl’ will premiere 8 p.m. Sunday, June 15 on the Smithsonian Channel. 

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