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Gutsy Female Marine Biologist Snorkeled with Sharks

1900s | August 13, 2018

Long before “Jaws” warned us not to go in the water, a gutsy, smart female marine biologist named Eugenie Clark made it her life’s work to study man-eating sharks. Throughout her long life, Clark faced killer barracudas, dangerous giant squids, and even an encounter with a 500-pound clam, but some of the bigger challenges she faced was being a woman…and a Japanese-American…in the male-dominated,  1940s through 1990s.

Clark was the Only Japanese-American in her School

Born in 1922 to an American father, Charles Clark, and a Japanese mother, Yumico Motomi, Eugenie Clark was fascinated by fish, especially sharks, from an early age. Her father died when she was just two and her mother later remarried a Japanese business owner named Masatomo Nobu. The Japanese culture was strong in Clark’s household, but it made her an outsider at school. When she graduated from Bryant High School in Queens, New York, she was the only Japanese-American student at the school.

Clark spent many days of her childhood at the New York Aquarium at Battery Park. She longed to study marine biology and oceanography. She was particularly interested in sharks, though everyone thought she was crazy. Why would a young girl want to study these dumb and deadly animals?

Clark didn’t get into her first choice College Because She was a Woman

Clark earned a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1942 from Hunter College. She also earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from New York University. New York University, however, wasn’t her first choice for graduate schools. She really wanted to study at Columbia University. One of the scientists in the marine studies department at Columbia told Clark that she probably wouldn’t finish the program there, adding “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.”

Clark showed him. She earned her degrees (elsewhere), made ground-breaking discoveries in the field of marine biology, wrote several books and hundreds of academic papers, founded educational programs, pioneered the use of scuba in underwater research, traveled the world as a noted lecturer…and she did it all while being married five times and raising four kids.

Clark Faced Down Sexism and Discrimination

While Clark was lucky that she wasn’t forced into a World War II Japanese Internment Camp, like many other Americans of Japanese-descent, she did encounter suspicion and discrimination because of her Japanese parentage. She also experienced sexism. When she worked at California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, she and another female scientist were banned from going on overnight trips because the male scientists felt it would be immoral for them to travel with men.

Clark Taught a Prince to Snorkel and Rode the Back of Whale Shark

As a marine biologist, Clark had many adventures and close calls. She encountered giant squids and schools of barracuda in the ocean, in addition to hundreds of different species of sharks. She scuba dived into underwater caverns off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to observe sleeping sharks, debunking the myth that sharks had to be in continuous forward motion. She found that an effective shark repellent could be made with the secretions from a species of flatfish native to the Red Sea. Once, off the coast of Baha, California, she caught the fin of a 40-foot whale shark and rode it through the waves. She even taught Japan’s Crown Prince Akihito how to snorkel. Following the release of the movie, “Jaws” in 1975, she was featured in a National Geographic article in which she tried to dispel fears about sharks.

Clark Founded a Shark Research Facility in Florida

In 1955, Clark founded the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, to study sharks and marine preservation. The facility has since changed names and is now called the Mote Marine Laboratory. The focus of the facility has also changed to include all types of marine life, not just sharks, and to promote coral reef restoration and marine conservation and protection.

Clark Continued Scuba Diving Until Her Death

Clark loved to observe marine life in its natural habitat. She continued to scuba dive well into her 80s and 90s, stopping only for a short time when she battled non-smoking-related lung cancer. The cancer eventually claimed her life. She died in 2015 at the age of 92.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.