Dr. Eugenie Clark is a renowned ichthyologist (a.k.a. fish researcher) and one of the world’s premier shark authorities. Explorer, teacher, writer, trail-blazer: this 90-year old woman, known affectionately as “The Shark Lady”, is a shining star in her field and a compelling symbol of marine conservation.
As a female biologist, I have long had great admiration for Dr. Clark. Not only is she a pioneer as a woman scientist who has forged an uber-successful career. Moreover, she did her training during the early 1940s, when academic life was neither common nor welcoming for women, which must’ve been doubly true for a Japanese-American in the cultural climate of World War II. Further still, her expertise is the challenging (underwater!) study of fish behavior. And to top if off, she is a forerunner in the use of scuba diving for marine research, who has traveled the remote corners of the world for her studies. Not an easy path by any possible measure.
All of this hard-core adventure from a tiny lady (all of five-feet-two / 1.57 m) who was raised in a New York apartment – pretty awe-inspiring stuff!!!
Inspiration for a research career
Growing up, little Genie was inspired by the creatures housed at the Aquarium in Manhattan’s Battery Park. She would visit the fishes every Saturday while her mother worked nearby. She has described how she would stand on the railing to put her face close to the glass, pretending that she was underwater, surrounded by swimming sharks. It made her think that one day she wanted to go into the sea and see sharks in the wild.
Dr. Clark said in an interview about the inspiration for her work: “I have mixed feelings about keeping fishes in glass ‘cages’ today but I realize my exposure to this as a child set the course for my life”.
She pursued her interests in fish and oceans by studying zoology at university. After her graduate studies, she worked as a research assistant at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, at the New York Zoological Society, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Later, she was the founding director (in 1955) of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. Originally the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, the Lab was created as a place to study and communicate about the importance of oceans. It blossomed from a small operation into a full-fledged research institution, staffed by leading scientists, along with a formal education division and a public aquarium. Dr. Clark remains a Mote trustee.
After running that marine lab, Dr. Clark became a faculty member at the University of Maryland (1968 to present), where she is now Professor Emerita of Zoology. She has received numerous honors and awards, given many public lectures, and consulted for many television specials and an IMAX film on sharks.
Amazing marine adventures
Dr. Clark is a powerhouse in her own right, and she has collaborated with the best of the best. A case in point: she was part of the legendary 1968 journey of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s ship, the Calypso, during its maiden voyage on a global tour to film ocean environments. She participated in experiments on shark behavior that we described inour article about Cousteau. The below documentary contains some footage of Dr. Clark in action on the expedition.
She began diving with a helmet in 1946, back in her mid 20s. Her diving history with sharks dates back more than 45 years, to her first shark encounter on a dive in the Palau Islands (Survivor, anyone?) around 1947. Dr. Clark is a member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, along with Cousteau, which is housed in the Cayman Islands. She has participated in 73 deep submersible dives (to depths greater than 300 m /1000 ft), a truly remarkable feat.
On one of her infamous dives, she was actually caught by a giant crab! Apparently she wasn’t afraid, yet she knew she had to act swiftly to free herself and return to the surface safely.
“Favorite” shark species
To me, it speaks volumes about Dr. Clark’s kind character that she would be so willing to answer a question (on her website) that kids have probably pitched a thousand times. In her own words, “it’s hard to choose a favorite because all shark species are so fascinating.” Yet she really likes sixgill sharks, and her favorite shark to see underwater is the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark.
Dr. Clark also likes lemon sharks because they taught her something essential – from them, she learned that sharks have a memory and are trainable. This species was kept in captivity at the Mote Laboratory during the 1950s. Lemon sharks were trained to push a target and ring a bell for food, and then choose between correct and incorrect targets. The sharks could remember what to do for months after not being presented with a target.
This ground-breaking work was documented in the leading research journal Science. Dr. Clark lists it as one of her favorite personal contributions to research, because “it showed that sharks were not stupid, mindless, man-eaters”.
Although she is retired from teaching, Dr. Clark continues to dive, conduct research and make public speaking engagements. Her latest interests are the behavior of tropical sand fishes and deep-sea sharks, and the biology of whale sharks. These studies have been featured in 12 articles that she authored for National Geographic magazine. The title of one of those pieces really sums up our mission: “Sharks: Magnificent and Misunderstood” (1981). Dr. Clark has been instrumental in sharing that important message with the world. In fact, her work is considered to be so influential that the National Geographic Society referenced “Eugenie Clark’s 13 grants exploring ocean life, especially sharks” in ranking their Top 10 grants that have contributed most to understanding the Earth. It mentioned her work right alongside the description of Cousteau’s “pioneering exploration of hidden ocean life”.
Dr. Clark was one of the researchers who helped to unlock the mystery of the whale shark’s breeding method, which was debated until a 1995 observation proved that they give birth to live young (versus laying eggs). Their research team ended the ongoing debate by talking to whale shark fisherman in Taiwan, who declared that the pups emerge alive. They dissected a big female and found over 300 babies inside of her, many more offspring than is known for any other shark species.
She recently led a research expedition to Indonesia, to study sand-diving fishes. One of the impacts of her legacy is demonstrated by the fact that a high school student accompanied her on this trip. The young woman had won the Eugenie Clark Expedition Scholarship, an award that enables outstanding students to participate in marine research. So, Dr. Clark continues to inspire new generations to protect our oceans not just by example, but also by actively encouraging their training and development.
Several books have been written about Eugenie Clark. You can consult a list of them here. An authorized biography by Ann McGovern – Adventures of the Shark Lady: Eugenie Clark around the World – documents her fascinating adventures. It is said to be inspiring reading for young people interested in marine biology.
Perhaps the best insight about Eugenie Clark, though, will come from her own words. Along with her scores of academic articles, she has written some popular books: Lady with a Spear (1953), The Lady and the Sharks (1977), and a children’s book called The Desert Beneath the Sea (1991).
In one interview she summed up her interest in ocean ecosystems like this: “those of us who love the sea wish everyone would be aware of the need to protect the sea”. She has also said “I don’t get philosophical. Love fish. Love sharks. Keep the water and their habitats as clean and protected as possible”.
Well done, well said.
Written By: Kara Lefevre
Balon EK (1994). An interview with Clark, Eugenie. Environmental Biology of Fishes 41: 121-125 DOI: 10.1007/BF00023808
Clark, E. 1959. Instrumental conditioning in lemon sharks. Science 130 (3369): 217-218.
Joung S-J, Chen C-T, Clark E, Uchida S & Huang WYP (1996). The whale shark, Rhincodon typus, is a livebearer: 300 embryos found in one ‘megamamma’ supreme. Environmental Biology of Fishes 46: 219-223.
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