Even the most enthusiastic shark week follower might not know who Eugenie Clark is. But when she died in February at 92, marine biologists and shark lovers around the world mourned her loss. She was known as the “Shark Lady,” and for a very good reason. Her research changed almost everything known about shark behavior.
Born in 1922 of a Japanese mother and American father, she became interested in marine biology at a young age. Her visits to the New York Aquarium were frequent, and she kept fish, amphibians, and reptiles in her family’s New York City apartment. Her first studies were on triggerfish and filefish, and her doctorate thesis was on swordtail fish. In 1953, she published a book about her experiences studying fish in Micronesia, Lady with a Spear. By the time she was 33, she had her own lab in Florida, still in existence today as the Mote Marine Laboratory. This earned her the nickname “Shark Lady” even before she began her studies that would make something like shark week possible.
Her work with sharks began when she realized that they didn’t seem to behave in ways consistent with their reputation. They were thought of as brainless eating machines, and when she trained a group of them to press targets, she showed sharks could learn. She also dove off the coast of Mexico to study “sleeping sharks” in caves, considered unusual because sharks were believed to have to move to breathe. These experiences were what made her known to the public as “Shark Lady.” In an event that would make shark week envious, she took Jaws author Peter Benchley diving because she wanted him to see how the story had damaged the reputations of sharks. (She liked Jaws herself, but thought of it as more Frankenstein-type fantasy instead of the reality of sharks.) She wrote a second book about her work with sharks, called The Lady and the Sharks, and would later author a children’s book with Ann McGovern, The Desert Beneath the Sea. She even rode on the back of a whale shark, calling it “one of the best experiences” she ever had.
In addition to her shark research, she taught at the University of Maryland from 1968 to 1999. She also discovered a new type of fish while diving in the Red Sea. (She named it Trichonotus nikii, after her youngest son.) She was also understood to be a pioneer in the use of scuba diving for marine research. In fact, she was still diving in her 90s and after being diagnosed with lung cancer (not related to smoking). She passed away on February 25, in Sarasota, Florida.
When she did a National Geographic story in 1975, she called it “Sharks: Magnificent and Misunderstood.” A better title for shark week could not be imagined. No doubt she would agree.
[Photo via Wikipedia/US Department of Labor]