· By Maria Nilsson
Madi Stewart, AKA Shark Girl, WHAT A WOMAN!
We are so thrilled to have had the chance to talk to Madi Stewart, one of our absolute heroes. Here at Atmosea we are all about living your passion, and let us tell you, Madi doing exactly that!
Having grown up in the waters of QLD here in AUS, Madi is now living in Lombok where she spends her days taking action against the current brutal practices of fishing and killing sharks, and doing an incredible job of creating awareness to hopefully change the industry and ultimately the future of our oceans.
Madi has published an Australian guide to surfing with Sharks, it is well worth a read, and has a podcast, Shark Stories that we are thoroughly enjoying listening to.
We had 10 gazillion questions to ask Madi, but for now we stuck to just a few. Stay tuned though, we have some exciting things in the pipeline and will have the chance to get to know Madi and the incredible world of sharks a little better.
1. What does the day in the life of Madi look like?
Right now, I am in Lombok Indonesia, I spend a lot of time here as I run my project here that aims to employ shark fishermen in tourism to provide alternative income and stop them fishing sharks. So I'm basically up at 3am to go document the latest shark catch being brought in, then on the boats for the whole day with the fishermen that work with me. If I'm lucky I'll get to surf. (www.projecthiu.com)
2. What is it about sharks that you love the most?
Honestly, it's the fact that they scare people. When I was little i'd watch horror movies and side with the monsters. I've always been fascinated by the things to scare people. It wasn't until I really got to know the shark that I realised they were in fact the victims. They have such an ancient presence to them, such a purpose, and it seems to have been misconstrued by us humans. Now I see them being killed in the hundreds, being slaughtered and neglected, the reason I fell in love with them has become their greatest undoing.
3. Do you have a favourite species of shark or ray?
Tiger sharks- this is because as well as being badass predators, they often act like dumb stoners. I've seen them make mistakes underwater like hit their head on a rock, screw up an attempt at an ambush, they show so much personality.
4. Do you mind sharing a few of the most memorable interactions? (scary & not so scary ;) )
I had one just this year, in the southern end of western Australia, the biggest great white sharks I've ever seen in my life, outside the cage with it, knowing that at any minute if it wanted to, this creature could end me. There are honestly few things more humbling than a great white shark. Another was the time I was bitten on the hand by a reef shark- this was my fault because I was hand feeding it. Then when I was 15 I was alone on a dive with two tiger sharks and they both disappeared suddenly, I then looked out and saw the biggest hammerhead sharks I have ever seen. Its head was as wide as I am tall, at first glance I thought I was looking at a whale. It swum right past me and kept going, its dominance over the ocean was insane. In all honesty, nothing has been scary, I've felt lucky for every encounter I get, the scariest thing is failure of dive equipment which is far more likely to kill me than a shark.
5. How do you avoid burnout? I can imagine you are constantly facing pretty intense and not so positive situations and it could wear heavily on your shoulders... Are there some tricks you have up your sleeve to help you carry on?
I love this question and think it's an important one- for anyone fighting for a cause other than their own, the truth is there is no avoiding it. If you're truly fighting for it- you find yourself constantly amongst the not so positive situations, as this is where the most effort is needed. I have reached this stage several times. In fact, the start of the covid lock down represented a massive opportunity for me to overcome my burn out because I couldn't travel back to Indonesia. I am very driven, in a somewhat unhealthy way, so it literally took a pandemic to make me stay home. So I embraced the fact I could not travel, I relied on friends, I surfed everyday and I avoided working on changing the world for a short amount of time, until I could return mentally. The time it takes to do so isn't always a luxury I feel I have. One illusion I've seen people have toward me, is that I have my shit together haha I don't- I can't begin to tell you the toll my life has on me mentally and how often burn out becomes something I push through and don't even address- the biggest thing I now know and encourage others to do, is to address it, because you're no good to the world if you're burnt out.
6. What is some advice you have for people who are fearful of sharks?
Meet one- and your mind will be blown. There are many ways to do this, it's actually a major tourism attraction around the world now. If that's not your cup of tea, check out my surfing guide to sharks and learn as much as you can about the shark, that way its no longer a stranger, but a part of life and that knowledge you have of them is similar to the use of a seat belt in a car, it will keep you safe. (www.surfingguidetosharks.com)
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7. What inspired you to dedicate your life to conservation?
I wasn't a choice, I was witnessing the massive loss of sharks at age 14, the shark populations I grew up diving with were disappearing. I felt responsible and a sense of urgency. I have always told people to not call me a conservationist because I dislike the word, I dislike being labelled or respected for what I do. This is purely because I want it to be normalised- I think it should be a priority of everyone to fight for our natural world that it should be encouraged, taught in schools and not as much of an occupation as it is an expectation.
8. How do you deal with 'shark haters'?
I understand this is usually a product of fear, so I try to approach them with nothing but understanding and compassion. I then remind them that there are few animals we deem acceptable to cull or kill merely for our own comfort, those who hate sharks to me, represent a massive failure of humans, to accept their place in the food chain, and be truly connected to the oceans by being humbled by them.
Being a smart consumer is probably the most essential thing you can do as an individual to help sharks. This goes beyond just saying no to shark fin soup and any establishments that sell shark fin soup. Shark by-products include skin, liver oil, cartilage and meat can be found in many different products; ranging from cosmetics to jewellery. By saying no to shark products, or any product that contains shark derivatives, you are helping lower the demand for such products. You can also go one step further by getting in touch with companies and manufacturers to voice your concerns. The other major way to help is to be a voice for sharks, to everyone in your life. This is something they truly need.