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The rock star female scientist who put shark research on the map

Dr Eugenie Clark examines a whale shark pup in her lab. (Photo by David Doubilet)

If you spent any serious amount of time in the shark world in the past several decades, sooner or later your path would cross with Eugenie Clark.

That is, if you were lucky.

I got my chance close to a decade ago, when I journeyed to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. to visit scientists there. While I had gone there to talk with Robert Hueter, who directs the lab’s Center for Shark Research, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to meet Clark—known as “the Shark Lady” to the outside world, and “Genie” to her friends—who was in her mid-80s at the time.

Clark, an ichthyologist who established the lab in 1955 in a small wooden shack on the Vanderbilts’ estate in Placida, Fla., pioneered shark research half a century before I became intrigued by these ancient predators. Professors at Columbia University told her it would be a waste of their time to admit her to their graduate program because she’d end up as a housewife; she ended up getting a PhD from New York University instead, studying sperm competition among poeciliid fishes.

Before dying Wednesday at the age of 92, Clark traveled the world, diving in the Red Sea, Palau, and off the Yucatan. She married—five times—and had four children with her second husband. She taught every one of them to dive, and when her son Nikolas was 6 years old the two of them were in the Red Sea when she spotted an unfamiliar fish. She plopped it into his dive mask, and later named it Trickonotus nikii, after him.

“Much to my brother’s annoyance,” is how Nikolas Konstantinou remembered it Thursday when we spoke by phone. The fish often buries itself in the sand, he added, “So they call it Tricky Niki.”

When Clark and I chatted, I got her to recount the time she rode on a whale shark in 1980 off Baja California. Her pixie-ish face lit up at the memory, as she explained how she grabbed onto her sliding air tank as the 50-foot pregnant female swished its tail back at forth.

“You wouldn’t do that now,” she told me. But she wasn’t apologizing, mind you. “It was incredible.”

Underwater photographer David Doubilet was on assignment for National Geographic with Clark the day she took that ride, snapping photos and trying to keep up with an animal that was cruising at about one knot.

Even as Clark was sliding off the shark, Doubilet recalled Thursday, “I hear this ‘Whee!’ And she comes up beaming, beaming like crazy.”

She got right back on after slipping off, Doubilet said, and ultimately returned to the boat proudly bearing scars from where the whale shark’s denticles had scratched her knees.

Later on the pair journeyed to Nigaloo Reef, off western Australia, and showed it was a major gathering area for whale sharks. The government designated it as a national marine park, bestowing protection on the sharks and generating tourism dollars for the locals.

“All this whale shark riding did come to something,” Doubilet said.

For years, shark research—as well as shark policy–was considered a backwater. I sometimes wonder if that’s why so many women have risen to prominence in this field, whether it’s Ellen K. Pikitch at Stony Brook University, or Barbara Block at Stanford University. For whatever reason, it meant that young men and women studying sharks today view female scientists as having an outsized influence on the field.

David Shiffman, a doctoral student at the University of Miami’s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, met Clark when she was 88. He considered her “a rock star scientist,” and was shocked that after he had left, she remembered his name, looked up his address and sent him a signed copy of her book.

And I managed to get in the water with whale sharks months after meeting Clark, when I joined Hueter and his colleagues for a tagging expedition off the Yucatan. I thought of her as I swam along a fish as big as a school bus—though I didn’t clamber on its back.

And I thought of her as I took my newborn son on a fishing boat off Miami, and to a town in South Africa where great whites congregate, and to plenty of other far-flung places so I could research my 2011 book, “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.”

Three years ago, I gave Clark a copy of my book, on the last time I had a chance to visit with her in Sarasota. She was more frail at that point, but just sharp, and still interested in what I had discovered in my travels.

On occasion, when I’ve spoken on my book, people have called me “The Shark Lady.”

No, I try to explain, there is only one true Shark Lady. And now, she’s gone.