Tribute to pioneer, mentor, thought leader, author, TV star, Women Divers Hall of Fame honoree and much-loved “Shark Lady,” Eugenie Clark.

 

eugenie clark ocean activist, women diver, marine conservation, marine conversationist, ocean issues, sharks, Eugenie was an American marine biologist who fell in love with sharks as a child with her nose pressed against an aquarium tank, and later became famous for her shark research,  National Geographic articles and TV specials on the much maligned species. Eugenie changed the way we look at sharks. Before Clark began her research on sharks in the 1950s, the animals were considered both dumb and deadly. “After some study,” she said, “I began to realize that these ‘gangsters of the deep’ had gotten a bad rap.” Clark’s viewpoint, knowledge and influence helped to dispell the public’s fears about them, especially after the 1975 movie “Jaws” was released.

A force of nature, and indefatigable explorer, Eugenie was one of the first to use of scuba gear to conduct underwater scientific research. A veteran of more than 70 deep dives in submersibles, Clark continued diving into her nineties, even after being diagnosed with non-smoking-related lung cancer.

Eugenie Clark was born in New York City on May 4, 1922, to a Japanese mother and an American father who died when she was a baby. Her mother later married a Japanese restaurant owner, and Clark would credit the ocean-focused Japanese culture for her life’s passion.

Clark pursued her dream to be an ocean explorer, earning a B.A. in zoology from Hunter College in 1942 and a master’s and Ph.D. from New York University. She had hoped to attend Columbia University, her first choice for postdoctoral studies, but a scientist there told her, “If you do finish, you will probably get married, have a bunch of kids, and never do anything in science after we have invested our time and money in you.”

 

A Trailblazer

Eugenie was a true trailblazer. But despite marrying—five times—and having four children with her second husband, Clark proved that skeptic wrong. Few women, let alone Japanese Americans, were working in the male-dominated field of marine biology when she started out after World War II. Clark and another early underwater explorer, Sylvia Earle, would become role models and mentors to a generation of women marine biologists.

After graduate research in the South Pacific—her 1953 autobiography about her experience, “Lady With a Spear”, became an international bestseller—Clark took a job at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Clark did stints at the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society) and the American Museum of Natural History before moving to southwest Florida in 1955 and founding the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. It was later renamed Mote Marine Laboratory and eventually expanded its initial focus on sharks to include wild fisheries, coral reef restoration, marine biomedical research, and other issues.

In 1968, Clark joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, where she taught marine biology until her retirement in 1992. She stayed connected with Mote, spending her later years there as a trustee.

Although Clark was a serious researcher who developed the first “test-tube babies” in female fish – and discoverred several fish species and had some named in her honor – her ability to connect to the general public and talk about the importance of exploration and protection of oceans and conservation of species left lasting legacies.

With notes from National Geographic, Women Divers Hall of Fame, Alert Diver.