Eugenie Clark: Meeting the Shark Lady

This extract is a chapter from the women in STEM anthology, A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Inventionavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

by Helen Scales

They say never meet your heroes, but meeting one of mine was unexpected and delightful. I was visiting Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida to give a public lecture about my book on seahorses. Earlier that day, I’d found some minute fish hiding in the shallow, seagrassy waters of Tampa Bay and was already feeling right at home. The lecture hall was packed, the audience asked great questions and many of them sprang up afterwards to have me sign copies of my book. And who should I spot waiting patiently in line? It was Eugenie Clark, aka the Shark Lady.

Truth is, I’d not been expecting to meet Genie until the following day. In an earlier email exchange with her assistant, we made plans for a lunch date together. It never occurred to me that she would come and hear me speak, let alone buy my book and stand in line to have me write in it. As she reached the front of the queue, her friend leaned over and whispered in my ear “This is Eugenie Clark, she’d like to have her picture taken with you.”

That photograph now hangs in my study and shows a pair of beaming marine biologists. As it was taken, Genie wrapped her arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. Here was one of my all-time heroes, eminent scientist, famous explorer and pioneer of underwater research, and she was apparently as pleased to meet me as I was her.

The next day, we met for lunch as planned. We sat together in a booth at the aquarium diner, overlooked by tanks of gyrating baby seahorses, our plates loaded with junk food, and we sat chatting like old friends. She asked about my adventures with seahorses, and I quizzed her about how she trained sharks to ring bells and her diving expeditions all around the world, and deep beneath the waves. And I wanted to know what Jacques Cousteau was really like. “His wife was the one in control behind the scenes,” she told me.

My fishy inspiration

Genie is undoubtedly one of the reasons I became a marine biologist. As a teenager I obsessed about the environment and, for a while, was sure I’d go to the Amazon rainforest and help save the planet. Then at sixteen I learnt to scuba dive and my vision turned from green to blue. Suddenly all I could think about was being in the sea and swimming with fishes. It was at around that time I first read Genie’s two books recounting her early years as a marine biologist in the 1940s and 50s. I became totally wrapped up in stories of her adventures as she roamed the oceans in search of fish and I saw no reason why I couldn’t follow in her footsteps. Also, without knowing it at the time, her elegant descriptions of the marine world had sowed seeds of the science writer inside me. Now that I had a chance to meet Genie, I was incredibly excited to hear first hand about her trailblazing career, but I hadn’t expected to be profoundly uplifted just spending time with her.

When we met, Genie was shortly to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. “Not a big one” she confessed. Eighty-eight was far more noteworthy for her, eight being a lucky number in her mother’s homeland Japan. While most ninety year olds start taking life easy, not Genie. She still scuba dives and continues her research. At eighty-seven she learned to pilot a deep sea submersible. Lately, she achieved another lifelong dream and went scuba diving with the mysterious sevengill sharks in the deep, cold waters off South Africa. In Indonesia, she recently found and named a new species of swell shark, a peculiar creature that balloons up like a puffer fish when scared.

Now retired from the University of Maryland, Genie regularly returns to the Mote Marine Laboratory, where she was the founding director sixty years ago, and can often be seen walking the corridors all through the night. There she studies the captive population of eel-like convict fish from Southeast Asia. They build convoluted rocky tunnels, which she peers into with mirrors. She desperately wants to answer the question of how the adults get their food.

Unlike Genie, who continues her adventures far and wide, as the convicts mature they lose their wanderlust and retreat to their burrows, apparently never leaving again. So how do they survive without an obvious source of nourishment? She thinks their black and white striped offspring could answer the conundrum. The young ones swarm out at night to feed, returning at dawn to dangle from the burrow roof suspended on mucous threads, a bizarre and unexplained phenomenon. Genie has also spotted them darting in and out of their parents’ mouths, unharmed. Perhaps the youth bring back and regurgitate food for their idle parents, a reversal of the conventional dining arrangements in many other animals.

Genie’s ambition to become an ichthyologist — a scholar of fish — began when she was just nine years old. She first fell in love with fish while growing up in New York. Her father passed away when she was two and, while her mother worked at a cigar and newspaper stand, young Genie spent weekends at the Battery Park aquarium in Manhattan. Pressing her face against the glass, she was transfixed by the kaleidoscope of fish flitting past.

“Throughout high school, fish were on my mind,” she wrote in her first book, Lady With A Spear. She loved swimming with her mother, stuffing chewing gum in her ears and opening her eyes underwater to try and catch a glimpse of her beloved fish. Her home began filling up with a menagerie of aquatic pets. She went on to major in biology at Hunter College and, for her masters at New York University, she studied how puffer fish puff.

By 1947, at the age of twenty-five, Genie set off on her first fishy adventures overseas. Back then, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was exploring the possibilities of opening new fishing grounds in the Philippines. Genie was hired to carry out fish surveys, but she never made it to her destination. She got as far as Hawaii when she was mysteriously told the FBI needed to check on her Japanese ancestry and, after two weeks of waiting, she handed in her resignation. She never found out the truth but suspected that the real problem came when officials realized she was the only female scientist on the programme. A man was hired in her place.

From sea to sea

Genie didn’t give up on her dream of becoming an ichthyologist. Back in New York she continued her studies focusing for her PhD on popular aquarium fish called platyfish and swordtails. In captivity, these two types of fish will readily mate, often producing offspring that develop black skin tumours, similar to human melanomas. And yet living side-by-side in the wild, the two species do not interbreed. Genie spent years finding out why. In the process, she produced the first ever test tube fish babies, spent hundreds of painstaking hours watching fish and eventually discovered the key to her puzzle: sperm competition. When a female mates with numerous males, the sperm from males of her species have a competitive edge over sperm from another species. This means that the majority of the live young she gives birth to will be purebred and not hybrids.

While Genie was finishing the last few experiments for her PhD, more opportunities came along to study abroad. She went to the Bahamas for a few months to find out why male filefish do head stands (it turns out to be an aggressive display that helps them figure out who’s boss). Then she set off on her most exciting journey yet. Following the end of World War II, many Pacific islands were subsumed into the United States and the Government wanted to know more about their new territories, including what lives in the sea.

This time no barriers appeared in front of Genie and she headed out into the Pacific. She was granted free passage on the US Navy’s transport fleet and spent the next year island-hopping. She wanted to gather as much information as she could about the diversity of fish inhabiting bustling coral reefs in Guam, Palau, and beyond. In particular she was keen to study a group of largely poisonous species known back then as plectognaths (from the Greek for twisted jaw — take a look at their skulls to find out why), including triggerfish, sunfish, unicornfish and boxfish. As a solo female researcher working in incredibly remote locations, her work was truly pioneering.

She describes her fish collecting antics in Lady With A Spear. She writes with passionate detail about the places she went and the people she met and worked with, offering up intricate details of her scientific process. The pages are illustrated with grainy black and white photographs of Genie, her long dark plaits and sturdy one-piece swimsuit, peering out of her big round diving mask as Melanesian fishermen teach her to throw nets and master the hand spear.

Her next destination was Egypt and the warm waters of the Red Sea. Funded by a Fulbright scholarship she lived and worked in a small, remote research station in Al-Ghardaqah, a village since transformed into the sprawling tourist hotspot of Hurghada. There she continued her studies of fish diversity and plectognaths, working from sail boats in clear blue waters with a backdrop of desert mountains.

After reading about Genie’s time at Egypt’s Marine Biological Station a wealthy American couple, Anne and Bill Vanderbilt, set their hearts on setting up a similar research base closer to home to study the rich marine life in Florida’s gulf coast. Most of all they wanted Genie at the helm. “Start a place here where people can learn more about the sea” was all the Vanderbilts asked of her. By then it was 1955, she was married and she brought her young family with her to the Vanderbilt’s coastal ranch at Cape Haze where her adventures continued.

Genie’s second book, The Lady and the Sharks, brims with stories of her time setting up the research station, which later moved and was renamed Mote Marine Laboratory. Before the move, it was a single wooden building, twelve by twenty foot, set on stilts at the water’s edge. A small dock and cages were suspended in the sea to hold live specimens gathered from local waters, including a growing number of sharks that began to command Genie’s attention.

Teaching sharks new tricks

Genie studied mysterious pores on sharks’ bellies, discovered a type of fish that secretes an effective shark repellent, and pioneered in-depth studies of shark behaviour. She proved for the first time that, far from being mindless killing machines, sharks have good memories and can learn simple tasks just as well as dogs can.

When a photograph of Genie swimming alongside a tiger shark appeared in National Geographic Magazine, she gained the enduring nickname of the Shark Lady. It was an identity she brought with her in 1967 when she moved north to become professor at the University of Maryland. There she stayed for more than three decades taking up her place as one of the world’s top ichthyologists.

My favourite story Genie told me, that day sitting in the diner at Mote, was of the time she took a baby shark on an aeroplane. She had been invited to visit a fellow fish fan: Akihito, Crown Prince of Japan. At a loss as to what gift to bring him, she finally hit on the idea of taking the young nurse shark that had been trained, by her student Freddie Aronson, to ring a bell when presented with a striped target. “I could be sure he hadn’t already got one,” she said.

Freddie constructed a portable version of the shark target equipment and a compact water tank the size of a large hatbox, with a shoulder strap. The shark was given a free seat next to Genie on the plane and was let out during the stopover in Hawaii to stretch its fins in the Waikiki aquarium. Once in Japan, the shark was installed in a special tabletop tank and given pride of place in the palace. Despite the long journey, it immediately swam across the tank, pressed the target with its snout and rang the bell just as it had been trained. This time, it was rewarded with slices of finest lobster fed to it with chopsticks inlaid with mother of pearl. It became the world’s most pampered shark.

Back at Mote, after finishing our lunch, Genie showed me to her office. Behind the door plastered in dive stickers lies a cosy shark grotto, jam packed with marine memorabilia. Shelves heave with ocean books and journals, tables are piled high with papers, the walls are covered in photographs and drawings of sharks, and dozens of dried shark jaws – large and small – hang from the ceiling.

Genie tells the story of the only time she’s been bitten by a shark: She was driving to give a lecture, with the dried jaws of a twelve-foot tiger shark on the car seat next to her. When she stopped short at a red light, she shot out her hand to stop the jaws falling on the floor, and the long-dead shark chomped down on her arm.

Seeing her surrounded by memories of her adventures I imagine her long and extraordinary life spooling out behind her like a roll of film. Here we stand in the technicolour present, and behind her the colour fades to the black and white images of her early exploits. I played a very small part in the movie of Genie’s life, walking on somewhere towards the end and delivering my few short lines. And yet it was a great honour to make my appearance, and I went away hoping that Genie would remember me.

As we hugged a goodbye, there was one regret and one new ambition burning fiercely in my mind. My regret is a silly one and something I can never fix: I feel hard done by that I never had a chance to be her student. I can imagine nothing more wonderful than learning from Genie, spending more time with her, tapping into her immense knowledge, experience and passion for the oceans. Her website gives a modest list of her lifetime achievements – over 170 papers, reports and books, seven medals, scholarships and fellowships, four fish species named after her and much more besides. More prominent on her website, though, is a long roll call of all the people she has collaborated with over the years: high school students and summer volunteers alongside fellow professors (I know few other academics who take such care to publically thank everyone they’ve ever worked with). I only wish I was on that list.

And my new ambition? I am going to try my hardest to be a little bit more like Genie. If I could have a fraction of her enthusiasm, energy and warmth by the time I reach my eighties, that would undoubtedly be a good thing.

Further reading

Clark, E (2010), The Lady and the Sharks, Sarasota, Florida: The Peppertree Press.

Clark, E (1953), Lady With a Spear, New York: Harper Bros.

About the author

Dr Helen Scales is a marine biologist, diver, author and broadcaster based in Cambridge, England. She has written for National Geographic, Geographical, The Globe & Mail and The Guardian and makes radio documentaries for the BBC. Her first book explores humankind’s thousand-year fascination with seahorses.


Find out about more women in STEM in A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention and More Passion for Science: Journeys into the Unknown, both ebooks just £1.99 on Amazon.