The West

The shark defender
Madison Stewart. Picture: Ernst Stewart

Watching Madison Stewart swim freely with sharks, tickle their noses and put them in a trance, you could be forgiven for thinking she has super powers on par with her hero, Spider-Man.

Her amazing ability is featured in Shark Girl, a documentary following her tireless efforts to save the creatures most of us fear.

"It's a strange occurrence called tonic immobility," she explains. "It's my favourite thing to film and show people because it really eliminates their idea of this 'crazy man-eater'.

"The longer you spend with certain sharks and the better you get to know them, you can start treating them the way you would your dog. But it's not something I would recommend trying."

Growing up on the Great Barrier Reef, Stewart fell in love with sharks. "I remember seeing them while snorkelling as a young kid and being consumed by documentaries about them. I was taught about them and with that comes an absence of fear. There are situations that concern me and may lead me to make the wise decision to get out of the water but sharks have never compelled the feeling of fear in me.

"On my 12th birthday I got to dive with two big grey nurse sharks and nothing could prepare me for the wonder of seeing this animal in real life."

Just a couple of years later, Stewart realised the creatures she considered part of her family were disappearing fast, thanks to commercial fishing. About 80,000 sharks can be hauled annually from the reef.

Stewart left school aged 14 to dedicate herself to changing perceptions of sharks and raising awareness of their plight.

"It was very hard and very lonely but at the same time totally worth it," she says. "Home schooling made it possible for me to do what I wanted. But it robbed me of my only social interaction with my own age group."

Stewart's online rallying came to the attention of documentary makers Gisela Kaufmann and Carsten Orlt. Her first response to them was "thanks but no thanks, I don't like being in front of the camera".

"But they insisted on meeting with me and I agreed to the film thinking this could be the largest outlet for awareness I could hope for."

Shark Girl climaxes with Stewart visiting the boardroom of a major supermarket chain to try to stop them selling shark meat, which she discovered contained dangerously high levels of mercury.

"You know why people are scared of sharks . . . because they have never talked to people in that boardroom," she says.

"My first impression was of the head of sustainability laughing at me when I told her I was 19. But I was confident. I have yet to meet someone who could best me in an argument about something I put my mind to."

Stewart recently visited WA to fight against the use of baited drum lines to kill big sharks. She faced legal challenges and a public backlash for her involvement.

"The WA shark cull is archaic and disgusting," she says.

"It is not a suitable method to protect people from sharks. If anything, it brings sharks closer to the beach. No great white sharks were caught, which were the species implicated in the attacks.

"Our government is dangerously in control of what happens in our waters and lacks the education required to make decisions in favour of species or our safety."

Behind the fighting words, Stewart knows she faces a tough battle. "I constantly feel overwhelmed, alone and tired but never like giving up.

"Spider-Man is my role model; he seems to be under the same kind of pressure."

The West Australian

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