The Sharkman meets Eugenie Clark
Sharkman: One Saturday morning, a long time ago, in downtown New York City, a Japanese woman and her nine-year-old daughter, walk out of the train station and see a sign that read “To the Aquarium”. Eugenie, what happened next?
Eugenie: We followed the sign, and my mother took me in. I was mesmerized with watching beautiful fish, from the little Neon Gobies to the big sharks, and felt I wanted to spend the rest of my life studying these wonderful creatures.
Sharkman: I believe this was the first place where you started giving lectures about the marine life, correct? Who were your students?
Eugenie: On rainy days especially, it was the homeless men from Battery Park who came into the aquarium to keep warm and get out of the rain. They followed me around and I talked to them about all the fish.
Battery Park Aquarium
Sharkman: Did your special interest in sharks start here, or did it happen later?
Eugenie: Yes, it started at Battery Park, when I saw my first living shark in the huge aquarium, with murky water, that looked like a mysterious and wonderful place. I leaned forward as close as I could get to the glass and pretended I was on the bottom of the sea with sharks.
Sharkman: Well the real moment came when you did not have to pretend anymore. Eugenie, do you remember your first dive, and your first shark encounter? Can you please tell us something about them?
Eugenie: My first dive was with a hard-hat helmet at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California. My first shark encounter on a dive was in the Palau Islands about 1947. I was swimming by myself away from shore among beautiful coral reefs, and in the open water I saw a shark. I didn’t have a chance to be afraid before it came close, and I admired the beautiful shark as I had so long ago as a child in the old aquarium at Battery Park.
Sharkman: First encounters will always have a special place in our memory banks. My own first shark diving experience was at “Ras Mohammed” in the Red Sea. I went there after having seen you in “Treasures of Ras Mohammed” talking about the place and its beauty. It is due to your hard work that this place is a National Park & Marine reserve, but how did you get involved in it?
Ras Muhammed National Park, Egypt
Eugenie: It is the first underwater national park in the Red Sea and the first national park of Egypt. It’s strange for a country to have its first national park be an underwater park. I was good friends with an Egyptian diver, Ayman Taher, whose father had recently made a portrait of President Sadat. Through Ayman I met the Sadat family. President Sadat was intrigued to know that his country had one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. He offered to make it a national park by presidential decree, but he was assassinated before he could do this.
However, his prime minister, who knew about me and also about President Sadat’s wishes, lobbied the Egyptian parliament. Many people helped, including Ayman Taher, one of the greatest Egyptian scuba divers and underwater photographers. His pictures popularised the beauty of Ras Mohammed, and it became law. The great underwater photographer, Nick Caloyianis, was also instrumental in bringing the beauties of Ras Mohammed to the people of Egypt and the world through his underwater filming for the movie made by the Telmassani brothers, called “The Treasures of Ras Mohammed”. We all worked together on this project.
Sharkman: It is truly a treasure, and it offers fantastic diving. I sure am happy that I followed your tip. Your research and adventures have taken you all over the world (except here in Malta), and you have dived in all oceans and to all depths. A few times you have been faced with dangerous situations, but was there ever a moment when you were actually scared?
Eugenie: The most frightening experience I had, was in a deep fresh water spring in Florida when I thought I had lost my dive partner who went too deep. I searched all over for him, only to find him sitting on the shore talking to people. He had forgotten to tell me he was going up.
Sharkman: Oooops! I will not ask you to tell me what you told him, but instead I’ll ask you about a nicer event. I know that you must have hundreds of them, but which is “The Most Memorable Moment in your Career”?
Eugenie: I can’t single out a particular moment. I am constantly thrilled by seeing some wonderful animal underwater or some behavior that I haven’t seen before.
Sharkman: True. That is part of the beauty of the underwater world. You never know what you are going to see. Eugenie, I guess that one question everyone asks you, and I cannot keep away from. Do you have a favourite shark? If yes, can you please tell us why?
Eugenie: I have two favourite sharks. One favourite is the Lemon sharks we kept in captivity in the 1950’s at the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory (which is now the Mote Marine Laboratory). They were trained to push a target and ring a bell for their food. They then had to discriminate between correct and incorrect targets. A feat they could remember for months, after not being presented with a target. They taught me that sharks are not stupid creatures; they can learn, operate an instrument, and retain their memory of right and wrong selections for a long time.
Sharkman: How long did it take the Lemon sharks to learn to ring the bell?
Eugenie: About two weeks of intensive training was tried at first, then I realised that three times a week for two weeks would be okay for both Lemon sharks and baby Nurse sharks. They catch on quickly.
Sharkman: Wow!! That is fast. And your second favourite?
Eugenie: Underwater my favourite shark to see is the largest fish in the sea, the Whale shark.
Sharkman: If I remember correctly, that was your 50th birthday experience.
Eugenie, you are now 80 years old and still very active. In fact, I hear that you are still diving. When you look back at all you have done and achieved, are you satisfied, or do you see that there is still some dream you have to achieve?
Eugenie: I’m never satisfied completely, because I always seek to learn more about the fish I’m studying. In general, however, I continue to enjoy my life very much, combining diving and studies in my laboratory.
Sharkman: Is there a final comment or message that you would like to pass on to our readers?
Eugenie: I hope you can all enjoy and appreciate the sea as much as I have, by either diving in it yourself or watching the wonderful films that are now available on video and on television. Of course, those of us who love the sea wish everyone would be aware of the need to protect it.
Sharkman: Dr. Eugenie Clark, thank you for giving me the time for this interview and for being one of the first to inspire in me the love and passion that I, like you, have for the underwater world and its creatures.
Thank you for dedicating your life to teaching and sharing your knowledge with the World.