Shark Girl Madison uses photography and videography to help save sharks

Seize the Day and Save Sharks With Shark Girl Madison

Madison Stewart, AKA Shark Girl Madison is a woman on a mission to save the ocean’s most misunderstood inhabitants: sharks.

She was 2019’s Australian Geographic Society’s Young Conservationist of the Year. She’s been campaigning for over ten years. She’s been successful at lobbying the government to shut down shark fisheries. She’s helped stop supermarkets from selling shark products. And she creates beautiful films to communicate about the majesty and importance of sharks to our oceans, our world, and to us.

If you’re interested in marine conservation, you’ve probably heard of her. And if you haven’t – you can find out all about her work now! Learn how to save sharks from one of the most inspiring women in the field.

A portrait of Shark Girl Madison

How does your shark conservation story start?

Age 12, I was a certified Open Water diver at Sundive in Byron Bay. When I was 14 I picked up an underwater camera for the first time.

Everyone has a special memory of wonder from their childhood. My obsession quickly became the Great Barrier Reef. I left school to start homeschooling when I was 14. In an agreement with my father, I traded my school fees for an underwater video system. It was a simple tape camera in a waterproof housing.

From that point on, sharks, the Great Barrier Reef, and the oceans worldwide became my normality, my classroom and my home.

It’s fair to say I have adventurous parents that led me to believe a life anything less than extraordinary was not an option. I fell into this way of living quickly. 

I left school with the intention to travel the world and dive its oceans. I had no idea at the time that I would not get to live that life. But instead, I’d go down a very different path. 

I had entered the water on a night dive at the place I had had the closest encounter with sharks in the past. They would hunt in the floodlights from the boats. It was quite often just my father and myself surrounded by up to 40 sharks. 

This was the stuff dreams were made of. This was my place. To this day I’ve never felt safer or more at home than in those waters surrounded by sharks.

Madi says her safe place is when she’s in the ocean surrounded by sharks

When I returned to this reef only a year later, I saw one shark, too scared to come close to the boat. They had been fished out, at this exact moment the reality of the state of the oceans hit me. I came face to face with a legal shark fishery operating within the water of the Great Barrier Reef. I had seen for the first time, first hand, the effects of overfishing, and I was completely devastated.

I’ve loved sharks since I was young. It was my dream to have involvement in filming sharks. But I never expected it to be for conservation reasons. To have to convey a message in my films. To try and get those who fear sharks to twist their minds and respect them instead. 

Then filmmaking became the only thing I had to raise awareness and draw people in. It became my greatest asset. I never set out to be a ‘conservationist’, in fact, I dislike that word and I still maintain that I am not one. I watched the decimation of a species within my lifetime and I decided to fight back.

Coming face to face with the decline of shark populations due to legal shark fisheries operating on Great Barrier Reef was a turning moment for Shark Girl Madison

How have you educated yourself to get to where you are today?

Through self-motivated study, the professionals around me and the many mistakes I’ve made. 

Do you have any recommendations for conservationists who aren’t sure where to start?

“NIMBY”. It means ‘not in my back yard’. The idea is to start local. There’s always a small issue or a big issue close to home and this is where you will have the most impact. 

You’ll also need to volunteer, do crap work, be used and abused. You’re not going to get anywhere fast so don’t expect to. 

Don’t confuse social media fame with effectiveness and don’t lose sight of the reason you’re doing things. You’ll need them to remind you to keep going on the hard days. And there are lots of hard days.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

It’s not possible. Everyone’s journey is going to be different. But that’s a good thing. 

The most solid piece of advice I can give is that no one is going to make a path for you to follow to do what I do. There is no course you can take, no lesson you can learn. You have to build the path yourself. 

Also if you do it for the wrong reasons – wanting fame, wanting to be the one cutting an animal from a net – you will fail. 

You have to really know why you’re doing things and it has to be an ego-free commitment. It may look glamorous. But conservation comes with a number of sacrifices and potential mental health issues. It’s not something I’d wish upon anyone. Unless you’re in it for the right reasons, it could destroy you.

Her her work with sharks may look glamorous, it comes with its challenges - and Madi says diving with live sharks doesn’t happen very often

Do you have advice for budding conservationists who want to get more experience in marine or shark conservation?

I used to volunteer with a local dive shop and Sea Shepherd. This meant anything from doing dishes to shaking a tin to raise money on the streets of my hometown. 

These were simple things I did. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.

A lot of people think they’re going to get to start conservation and right away be on a boat diving with sharks. I can’t even remember the last time I got to swim with a live shark.

A lot of what you will and should do involves work that you didn’t expect to be doing, but trust me it all helps. I’d recommend shadowing someone. And volunteering. Look for organisations that can take you on and perhaps even individuals who can!

What resources do you recommend for people to learn more about sharks, conservation and the ocean?

It’s such a broad topic. You have to narrow down what you’d like to know and learn! 

From there you can access scientific research very easily, as simple as a google search. The other huge source of information for me was documentaries. I’m not talking about the Jaws-inspired, basically, cartoon series that is Shark Week. I’m talking about real and informative productions that tell stories and solve mysteries.

Watch Shark Girl Madison’s documentaries to learn about how to save sharks

Start saving sharks

Feeling inspired? There are so many things you can start doing today to save sharks and start your marine conservation career.

As Madi says, experience is everything! Start by researching, watching documentaries, and volunteering. Get involved with projects. Learn from people in the field. Find your perfect marine conservation job, or even start your own company and become a marine conservation entrepreneur!

Read more about Project Hiu, which means shark. It’s an initiative to provide alternative income to fisherman in Indonesia – the world’s capital for shark fisheries. You can join Madi on her project, and help make a difference in the real world by working with her in Lombok, Indonesia!

Follow Shark Girl Madison on Instagram, and check out her beautiful short documentaries about saving sharks.


Careers Advice, Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Marine Conservation Jobs