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Swimming With Sharks
Marine biologist Eugine Clark often comes face to face with big sharks. But she never fears them. By Brooke Lea Foster
Comments () | Published February 1, 2000

Imagine you're scuba diving in murky waters 100 feet below the ocean's surface. A little tipsy from the depth, you whirl around the underwater playground and imitate the fishes wiggling by.

It is dark, but you can see enough to make out a bigger fish approaching--one of the 40-foot-long variety. Your heart begins to race. Do you swim for your life?

No, says Eugenie Clark, slyly. "You grab on to its dorsal fin and go for the ride of your life."

Clark, a world-renowned shark expert, is sitting in her University of Maryland office, miles away from the waters where she encountered her first whale shark--a spotted, plankton-eating, 30-foot-long fish.

"It was thrilling to lie on top of its head," she says. "It's like swimming with a giant." Or living out a dream. The shark, with Clark on its back, glided through the water at three knots.

 

There are hints of Clark's adventures scattered around her third-floor lab in the College Park university's biology building.

Blown-up photographs of great white sharks hang from the ceiling. Pointy teeth line a bookshelf. Shark jaws decorate a wall.

Over five decades, Clark has swum alongside hammerhead sharks, great white sharks, cookie-cutter and tiger sharks. She discovered 11 new species of fish and named one, the Trichonotus nikii, after her younger son, Nikolas. He was about four years old at the time.

In her research, Clark proved that sharks aren't "stupid eating machines" but creatures that can be trained. She also demonstrated that sharks can keep still and "sleep" by lifting oxygen from water passing over their gills. And she discovered a colorful species of fish that disappear by burrowing tunnels through the sand.

She has led more than 100 diving expeditions, enough to be able to differentiate one body of water from the next. In 1983, she played a key role in establishing the world's first underwater national park, Ras Mohammed, off the coast of Egypt.

 

At age 77, Clark is petite and Robust. Looking at her, you won't see many wrinkles. Instead you'll notice eyes that dance with excitement when she talks about her dives.

"I was kneeling on the floor of an underwater cage. Out of the four-inch opening, a great white stuck his nose in," she says, leaning forward in her chair. "Then I felt the nose of another on the back of my head."

Did she feel like shark bait?

"It wasn't the fear I have when I go down to a dark basement," she laughs.

Another time, at a depth of 160 feet, Clark lifted a giant crab for a photographer. It had a claw span of nearly ten feet and decided to wrap its hind claws around her.

"He was doing it for leverage," she shrugs.

Known to some as the shark lady, Eugenie Clark has lived in Maryland for 31 years. When she misses the ocean, she goes to the ballet. She loves to compare the graceful movements of ballerinas with that of the hooded octopus.

Clark's love of the water began at an early age on the beach of Atlantic City. In summer, she would play in the surf. In winter, her mother sometimes took her to the New York Aquarium, where she would sit for hours.

"I used to pretend I was sitting at the bottom of the ocean," she says.

 

Clark began her career like any other marine biologist. She graduated from college in 1942, enrolled in graduate school and earned a PhD in zoology eight years later. In between degrees, she spent time doing research at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Woods Hole Marine Biological Station. In 1950, she won a Fulbright grant to study fish in Egypt.

When she returned to New York, she took a job teaching biology at Hunter College and spent most of her free time scrambling for research grants. That changed in 1953, when she wrote the autobiographical book Lady With a Spear.

Intrigued, tycoon William Vanderbilt and his wife, Anne, approached Clark about starting a marine laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. She jumped at the chance.

The Cape Haze Marine Laboratory, which opened in 1955, would be home to several of Clark's research triumphs. She was hired as a professor of zoology by the University of Maryland 13 years later.

Although officially retired since 1992, Clark continued to teach her course--Sea Monsters and Deep Sea Sharks, the second most popular class on the College Park campus--until this past winter.

Now, she claims, she's truly retiring from teaching. But Clark will remain affiliated with the university as a senior scientist. The University of Maryland Foundation funds some of her research, and she plans to spend a lot of time studying sand fishes in Sarasota.

"It's one thing to slow down," she says, "but I've got to finish my data." 

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 02/01/2000 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles