The ocean lost an amazing ally this week. Dr. Eugenie Clark passed away at the age of 92 in Sarasota, Florida. She received her Ph.D. from New York University and embarked on a 50+ year career in the name of the ocean. She worked in a variety of prestigious research institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She founded the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory (now the Mote Marine Laboratory) in Sarasota, which conducts research on sharks and a number of other marine species and issues.
It’s difficult for me to properly express how much Dr. Eugenie Clark meant to me. Since I was two or three, I knew I wanted to work for the oceans. My family was incredibly supportive, taking me to numerous aquariums and trips to the beach, letting me decorate my room with shark posters, jaws, and sharks in jars, humoring me when I asked for a membership to the Center for Marine Conservation (now Ocean Conservancy) as a birthday present, and leading me towards scientists and pioneers in the field as my role models. Of those great science and political icons that I latched onto, Dr. Eugenie Clark was at the top of my list.
“Shark Lady,” a biography about her life and work, was the first chapter book I ever read. I taped and repeatedly watched her TV appearances. During elementary school, I wrote to tell her about my latest shark-themed science fair project and saltwater career plans. After spending a number of years buried in my graduate work and law school textbooks, my sister managed to have Dr. Clark sign two of her books for me in congratulations for completing my juris doctor in 2013. They remain among my most prized possessions.
It’s easy to understand how Dr. Clark could be such a driving force for a budding ocean scientist and advocate such as myself. She was immune to societal boundaries, building a prolific scientific career in a traditionally male-dominated field on her own terms. Dr. Clark was proof that you really could have it all; she balanced her seemingly insatiable drive for knowledge with a family and a career that took her around the world (sometimes on the back of whale sharks).
She was a powerful voice in changing the public’s perception of sharks. Long before GPS tracking was making great whites (the first of which by OCEARCH was nicknamed ‘Genie’ in Dr. Clark’s honor) and other notorious “man eater” species more accessible to the public, Dr. Clark was a strong advocate in educating people about the wonder of sharks, and we’re starting to see a real sea change in how people view and appreciate sharks. Global support is increasing for bans on shark finning, some sharks and rays finally received protections under CITES, and shark sanctuaries have been established off the coasts of Honduras, the Bahamas, and French Polynesia.
Sharks still face threats from overfishing, finning, entanglement with fishing gear (bycatch), and climate change. Thankfully, I’m certain that I’m not the only ocean advocate that Dr. Clark inspired. There are generations of scientists and policy-makers who are working for sharks and the oceans thanks to her work. Dr. Clark’s legacy will continue in the good work of others and in every shark saved thanks to her influence. She will be greatly missed.