Issue 13: Eugenie Clark
by Melanie Gasmen-Fleck
Marine scientist Dr. Eugenie Clark dedicated her life to studying fish. For nearly seven decades, she traveled across the world to swim alongside and examine fish up-close, including sharks! In fact, her groundbreaking shark research and expertise earned her the nickname Shark Lady.
But Eugenie’s legacy goes far beyond her shark findings. As a Japanese-American woman, Eugenie overcame discrimination throughout her career. And as one of the only women in the marine biology field at the time, she paved the way for more female scientists to follow in her footsteps. She also advocated for protecting the ocean and the many wonderful creatures who call it their home. We can’t wait to tell her story in our upcoming issue!
Issue 13’s packed with an ocean of scuba-inspired fun and cool shark facts. It also teaches kids how to have determination just like Eugenie! This issue releases November 16th, 2020! In the meantime, learn more about Eugenie and her achievements below.
Dr. Eugenie Clark was born in Long Island, New York on May 4, 1922. Her mother, who was originally from Japan, taught Eugenie how to swim in the ocean when Eugenie was a toddler. And Eugenie couldn’t get enough of the water. Growing up, Eugenie loved watching marine life in their natural habitat, especially fish.
Since she was 9 years old, Eugenie dreamed of becoming an ichthyologist, a scientist who studies fish. But many people tried to discourage her. They thought deep-sea diving to study underwater animals was far too dangerous for a woman. One university even told her she would waste their program’s resources.
But Eugenie was determined to prove them wrong. She worked very hard to learn the ins and outs of the animal kingdom and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in zoology from New York University. However, Eugenie was often passed over for jobs because of her ethnicity and gender. But she didn’t let that stop her!
She landed a research job in the remote country of Micronesia, where she scuba dived to study rare and poisonous fish. She also traveled to the Red Sea, where she discovered three new fish species. Eugenie detailed her expeditions in her first book, Lady with a Spear. She shared how she once faced off with a barracuda, dove into underwater caves, and flew all the way to Japan with a young shark in tow, a gift for a Japanese emperor.
The popular book caught the attention of the Vanderbilt family. They funded a new research center, Florida’s Cape Haze Marine Laboratory (now Mote Marine Laboratory), and hired Eugenie as its founding director. Her first order of business was to learn all she could about the sharks surrounding Florida’s coast.
For the next twelve years, Eugenie thoroughly examined different shark species and treated each shark like any other fish. At that time, many scientists believed sharks were simple-minded beasts and pop culture gave them a scary, bad rap. But Eugenie worked tirelessly to disprove them. She believed sharks were smart and deserved to be protected like all marine creatures.
Eugenie was the first scientist in the world to train sharks to press targets, which tested their intelligence and memory. Interestingly enough, she also found that sharks didn’t need to move in order to breathe, as other scientists previously thought. To get her shark findings out into the world, she made numerous TV appearances and became known as Shark Lady.
In her second book, The Lady and the Sharks, Eugenie shared more of her fascinating stories. Can you imagine riding a 40-foot whale shark, almost being carried off by a giant crab, or observing sharks in underwater caves? Eugenie did it all. She also published over 160 scientific articles and contributed to National Geographic.
In 1968, Eugenie became a marine biology professor at the University of Maryland, where she taught for the next three decades. During her tenure, she led hundreds of research dives worldwide and continued to do so after retiring. One dive even went 12,000 feet below sea level.
Her passion for marine life dovetailed into her work helping conserve endangered marine animals and preserving the ocean reefs from destruction. She also helped create Ras Mohammad National Park, Egypt’s first underwater national park. It’s no wonder she received many awards throughout her lifetime, including awards from the National Geographic Society and the President’s Medal from the University of Maryland. Several species of fish have also been named in her honor.
Eugenie continued her research dives until she died from lung cancer at 92 years old, nearly ten years after being diagnosed. On her last dive, only eight months before she passed away, she led a group of divers to study triggerfish in the Solomon Islands. To this day, Eugenie remains a luminary in the marine biology field. She also inspires us to chase our dreams, put in our all, and feel more courageous when we’re facing the unknown.
All images courtesy of the Mote Marine Laboratory.
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