BLUE Ocean Legacy Award goes to Sarasota's famous Shark Lady

World-renowned Marine Scientist Dr. Eugenie “Genie” Clark has packed the first nine decades of her life with a remarkable collection of adventures and scientific achievements. Best known by her nickname “The Shark Lady,” Clark still swims nose to nose with some of the oceans’ most fascinating and sometimes feared inhabitants.

The founding director of Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory (formerly the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory), Clark’s significant role in shaping the field of modern marine biology across the globe, particularly humanity’s understanding of and relationship with sharks, is why she will be honored next week (Nov. 6, noon) at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit in St. Petersburg. 

Thus far in her career, Clark has conducted 82 submersible dives and more than 7,000 scuba dives, swam with and trained sharks, spear-hunted poisonous fish, contributed to groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and written three books and more than 160 scientific and popular articles on marine science. 

As the nonagenarian approaches the century mark, she shows no signs of taming her lust for underwater adventure. To celebrate her 92nd birthday last May, Clark journeyed to the Red Sea -- where she began some of her most significant research more than 60 years ago -- to dive the coral reefs and conduct research with Mote Marine’s international colleagues in Israel.

“There are still many fish in the Red Sea that are not known; that have yet to be described,” Clark says. “We still have so much to learn.”

Building a legacy, locally and globally

"Genie has opened up new doors for women to lead research and underwater exploration,” says Colleague Dr. Robert Hueter, Director for the Center of Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. 

“She entered science when it was mainly a man's world, made her way successfully and founded Mote -- which has grown into a world-class institution -- and along the way she inspired countless young women to follow her example,” he adds.

In 1949, at 25 years old, Clark was one of fewer than five women in the United States employed in the male-dominated field of ichthyology, the study of fish. The U.S. Office of Naval Research hired Clark that year to determine which fish in the recently acquired territory of the Pacific South Seas could be safely harvested by commercial fishermen. Clark collected and catalogued hundreds of species of edible and poisonous fish during the four-month research project, and learned how to spearfish from the native inhabitants of the Micronesian islands —- an unusual feat for a woman at the time. 

A Fulbright Scholarship brought Clark to Egypt to study marine life in the Red Sea in 1951, shortly after she completed her doctorate degree at New York University. Working from a marine biological station located near Al-Ghardaqa, Clark spent one year collecting and identifying hundreds of fish species in the Red Sea. Over the following decades, Clark would return more than 40 times to the Red Sea, where she made surprising and revolutionary discoveries. 

"In her many years exploring the seas, Genie's discoveries stoked the fires of marine research,” Hueter notes. 

Clark noted, for instance, that sharks in the Red Sea avoided eating a species of fish called the Moses sole, which eventually led to the invention of a “shark repellent” derived from a milky substance secreted by the fish.

“This exciting finding allowed others in the scientific community to study the chemical substances produced by this fish and helped these scientists get closer to finding new ways to avoid shark-human interactions," says Hueter.

William and Ann Vanderbilt, residents of the Cape Haze community located just south of Sarasota County, ran a small private school. Intrigued by Clark’s autobiography detailing her adventures in the South Seas and the Red Sea, Lady With a Spear (1953), the Vanderbilts invited Clark to present a marine biology lecture at the school upon her return from Egypt. 

“We were expecting anywhere from 10 to 20 people, but the schoolhouse was packed for my lecture. They never expected that many people. Everyone came because it’s a fishing town, and there is so much interest in marine animals and things that are happening in the sea. This was the first time they’d had an outside lecturer, and it was my first time [in Sarasota],” Clark recalls.

The tremendous response to Clark’s lecture demonstrated the need for a full-fledged marine laboratory in southwest Florida. The Vanderbilts provided financial support to establish the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in 1955. They placed Clark at the helm of the operation, which, in its fledgling years, consisted solely of herself and one assistant, local fisherman, Beryl Chadwick. 

A nickname is earned: “The Shark Lady”

Clark remembers shortly after the lab’s grand opening, when she was unpacking gear, receiving a call from Dr. John H. Heller, a medical researcher from the New England Institute of Medicine, who required her assistance collecting sharks for pioneering projects in cancer research. 

Clark and Chadwick worked together to acquire sharks for Heller, whose research indicated that a substance derived from shark livers could bolster the human body’s resistance to infections, viruses, bacteria and parasites by stimulating the immune system. These findings played an important role in influencing medical researchers’ early approach to seeking a cure for cancer.

While collecting sharks for Heller, Clark discovered that there were more than a dozen species of sharks residing less than 10 miles off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, including hammerhead, tiger, lemon and bull sharks. Almost immediately, Clark’s affinity for the fanged fish earned her a nickname that would last a lifetime: The Shark Lady. 

Beginning in the summer of 1958, Clark worked with Dr. Lester Aronson, an expert in animal psychology, to conduct revolutionary studies on the behavioral traits of sharks and their aptitude for training. Clark is the first person to train sharks to perform simple tasks, a feat she accomplished by teaching two lemon sharks to bump their noses against a target connected to a doorbell in order to receive a food award.

Grants from the Office of Naval Research and support from the laboratory’s benefactors, including the Vanderbilts and William R. Mote (after whom the laboratory was renamed in 1968 following its move to Sarasota), allowed Clark to expand the labs to include additional shark tanks and research staff. Her pioneering research and efforts to educate the public about shark behavior plays a significant role, to this day, in defining humans’ perceptions of the fascinating and intelligent fish, which for centuries suffered a stigma as a terrifying monster of the seas.

Diving into the future

In May, Mote President and CEO Dr. Michael Crosby, accompanied Clark on her return to the Red Sea, in the Gulf of Aqaba, off the coast of Israel and Jordan, where Mote researchers are working with their Middle Eastern colleagues to discover the effects of ocean acidification on coral reef ecosystems. 

“It all started, as everything at Mote started, with Dr. Clark. Point of fact, some of her early research that was conducted with a number of different species of sharks took place in the Gulf of Aqaba, an offshoot of the Red Sea,” Crosby says.

Crosby says Mote researchers in Sarasota and the Florida Keys, as well as Israeli and Jordanian scientists in the Gulf of Aqaba, share common interests and concerns about coral reef ecology and the impacts of ocean acidification, and that he believes their collaborative research efforts could improve how scientists approach reef restoration activities and management.

“Mote is serving in a catalytic role to facilitate bringing scientists together from all around the world to tackle shared problems in marine science,” Crosby says.

“When you think about the economic engine that drives the state of Florida, it revolves in great part around tourism related to the marine environments … The research that we’re doing as part of Mote’s efforts down in Florida Keys, as well as in the Gulf of Aqaba partnership, has the potential to make a positive impact locally and around the world.”

The partnership in Gulf of Aqaba stems from the Mote-Israel Cooperative Marine Research Program, which was established in 2011 as part of the organization’s larger effort to establish a Center for International Marine Science Diplomacy. 

“The concept of marine research partnership and diplomacy is not just a catalyst for great science, but a way to bring people together,” Crosby says. 

“As an independent entity, we’re sort of free of the political restraints that are sometimes experienced within government organizations and universities … That allows us to be very nimble, very responsive, and very opportunistic in terms of working with international colleagues, no matter where they’re from,” he adds. 

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli.. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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