The Shark Girl was born seven decades after the Shark Lady and half a world away. The Shark Lady is a native New Yorker and a Ph.D. The Shark Girl is from Australia’s Gold Coast and dropped out of middle school. Each is a world-class diver. And both are devoted, heart and mind and in their hippy souls, to the ocean’s greatest predator.
“For me the dream was once to finish school and become a marine biologist,” said Madison Stewart, whose “Shark Girl” won top prize at the Blue Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit Friday in St. Petersburg. “But that never happened because I just started doing films.”
Eugenie Clark, the Shark Lady and founder of Mote Marine Aquarium in 1955, also was honored at Blue 2014 with a Legacy Award. Clark, the author of three books and more than 160 scientific articles, overcame stereotypes in the science community to be a world authority in ichthyology; trail-blazed scuba diving for research purposes; and – like Stewart is trying to do – is a public relations champion for sharks.
“I never got involved in the science side of things. But it’s just amazing, other people’s work [with sharks],” said Stewart, 20. “Women like Sylvia Earle and Eugenie Clark. It’s truly amazing and inspiring. ... I would have liked to have seen more films about the science [by Clark and Earle]. So we can bring that level of understanding of sharks to a public level that normal everyday people can see.”
The Shark Lady is mostly out of the spotlight these days, unless her microscope is on. The Shark Girl is engulfed by the glare, partly because of “Shark Girl.” She can school an Australian government official, educate a fisherman, reprimand a bureaucrat, throw a tantrum at mainstream media and flash a solar-powered smile for the cameras in a slideshow of determined ocean steward, streetwise delinquent and passionate millennial.
Stewart, who was on a shark conservation panel Saturday at Blue 2014, is as real as its gets. And for Stewart, it’s about the sharks, stupid, including the ones on land.
“The media in my country are terrible,” Stewart said. “Anything little that happens with sharks, as soon as I hear it on the news, it’s ‘Oh my, here we go again.’ … They truly demonize sharks.
“The truth is we spend our lives with sharks in Australia every day. They’re everywhere in Australia. It’s very easy to make people scared of sharks. We have to be careful how we word things with sharks. Half the battle with sharks is just with media. If it was dolphins or whales it would be a different story. Bad things happen to dolphins and whales, without a doubt, but not to the levels they do with sharks.”
Stewart learned to dive at age 12 and said she was given a choice by her parents at 14: an expensive private school or a home-school education.
“So I left school and bought me an underwater camera,” Stewart said with Aussie fashion. “I went back to the reefs I knew as a kid and the sharks were gone. At that time I realized I wasn’t going to be making cool little family videos about sharks. I was going to be making conservation videos to try to make people in Australia see sharks as something else than what the news shows them.”
“Shark Girl” was directed, written and produced by Gisela Kaufmann (Kaufmann Productions) for the Smithsonian Channel. The 58-minute film follows Stewart’s campaign to raise awareness about the plight of the ocean’s No. 1 predator. In addition to Best of Festival, “Shark Girl” won best documentary in the broadcast category.
“I think it’s humbling to be in the water with the only animal that the human race has not yet established control over,” Stewart said. “You’re in the water and you’re not the boss. They’re the boss.”
Stewart is diminutive in physical stature, like the Shark Lady, and said she is just getting started with her life's mission, probably also like Eugenie Clark's mindset 70 years ago.
“I didn’t use to believe this but one person can make a difference,” Stewart said. “Sometimes it’s actually up to only one person to make a difference.”
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» "PLAYING WITH SHARKS," which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, documents diving legend Valerie Taylor.