06/16/2014 12:36 EDT | Updated 08/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Make Sharks Our Friends, Not Out Food

James R.D. Scott via Getty Images

Don't cue the theme from Jaws for 20-year-old Madison Stewart, A.K.A. the "Shark Girl."

Madison has been diving with the sharks since the age of 12 in the Great Barrier Reef and she loathes the hype propagated in movies from Jaws to Sharknado that these mysterious beasts are "mindless blood thirsty killers."

Living on a boat since the age of two, Madison is a scuba diver and cinematographer dedicating her life to sharks. She believes they are threatened because we don't realize the vital role sharks play in the oceans.

"When I get in the water with sharks they don't see a human, turn around and come and try to attack me," she told me by email. "In fact most of the encounters I've had, and especially with the big sharks, they actually turn around and run away from me!"

"The only time we see sharks in the media is when an attack has occurred, and the media loves to play with the 'monster' spiel when it comes to sharks, when really, they have more to fear from us," she said.

Madison, who was first encouraged to swim with the sharks by her father who thought riding a bike would be too dangerous, is the star of a new documentary, appropriately called "Shark Girl." The documentary was to premier on the Smithsonian channel Sunday, June 15 at 8 p.m, Eastern and Pacific times.

Shark Girl follows Madison from Australia to Mexico, Palau to the Bahamas, to document her relationship with the great predators of the deep.

"Madison debunks the myth of the man-eater by swimming fearlessly with tiger sharks, feeding a rowdy gang of Caribbean reef sharks, and extracting fishing hooks from the mouths of ocean-going silky sharks," according to a release from the documentary.

The program showcases the determination of a young woman and her passion for the life in the seas, with the ultimate aim of stirring the viewers' "inner conservationist to action," said Vanessa Case, EVP, Programming and Production.

Conservationist films can have a powerful effect on the public. Notable examples include "The Cove," a 2009 documentary detailing the practices of dolphin hunting in Japan and "Blackfish," a 2013 documentary exposing the life of killer whales in captivity.

For Madison it is clear her bonds with sharks are as deep as the seas themselves.

"When I speak of family, I speak of sharks," said Madison. "I have witnessed the decimation of shark populations within my lifetime. My mission is to do everything in my power to protect them."

Madison never swims with a cage and when diving is armed only with an underwater camera: "I have never had a feeling of fear in the water with sharks, never had a physical reaction of a stronger heart beat near them, it's a totally calm and normal feeling for me."

She wants to show sharks, under pressure from commercial fishing and still hunted for food and for medicines, are crucial to sustaining life in the oceans.

"Sharks are to the oceans what garbage trucks are to a city, without them you either get a drastic reduction of certain spices or an influx of others. They keep everything in balance."

Madison has come to realize that she needs help if she has any hope for the species. But she is cautiously optimistic.

"I don't need people to love them, but I think they deserve our respect," she said.

'"With putting pressure on government and corporations, with people jumping on board, we can change the future of sharks."


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