Remembering Mote’s “Shark Lady”: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Eugenie Clark

Blazing trails for women in science; inspiring generations of people from ocean experts to school children; swimming with sharks to learn about them; and founding a world-class marine laboratory that turned 60 in 2015 — this is a snapshot of the life and legacy of Dr. Eugenie Clark.

“Genie” Clark — the famous “Shark Lady” who founded Mote Marine Laboratory in Southwest Florida — died at age 92 on Feb. 25, in the company of family at her home in Sarasota, due to complications from the lung cancer she had battled for years. She undertook her last ocean dives in 2014, and her latest research was in review for publication when she passed away.

Clark, an ichthyologist, was a world authority on fishes — particularly sharks and tropical sand fishes. A courageous diver and explorer, Clark conducted 72 submersible dives as deep as 12,000 feet and led over 200 field research expeditions to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba, Caribbean, Mexico, Japan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Indonesia and Borneo to study sand fishes, whale sharks, deep sea sharks and spotted oceanic triggerfish. She wrote three books and more than 175 articles, including research publications in leading peer-reviewed journals such as Science and a dozen popular stories in National Geographic magazine.

In 1955, Clark started the one-room Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Fla., with her fisherman assistant and with philanthropic support and hearty encouragement from the Vanderbilt family. The Lab thrived in partnership with its community and became Mote Marine Laboratory in 1967 to honor major benefactor William R. Mote. Today the Lab is based on City Island, Sarasota, and it hosts 24 diverse marine research and conservation programs, education programs for all ages and a major public Aquarium. The Lab has six campuses in Florida and more than 200 staff, including scientists who work in oceans surrounding all seven continents.

Clark joined the Zoology faculty at the University of Maryland in 1968, and she officially retired in 1992. She returned to Mote in 2000 as Senior Scientist and Director Emerita and later became a Trustee. There, she continued to build upon and champion the groundbreaking research that she started 60 years ago.

After carrying out a distinguished career spanning almost 75 years, raising four children and inspiring countless scientists, students and others, Clark will be remembered for her legacy of amazing discoveries and their ripple effects around the world. 

Clark is survived by her four children: Hera, Aya, Tak and Niki Konstantinou, and her grandson, Eli Weiss.

On March 2, Clark’s family placed her ashes into the Gulf of Mexico from aboard Mote’s ship R/V Eugenie Clark. Mote is planning with Clark’s family to hold a public celebration of her life in the coming weeks.

“There was absolutely no one like Genie Clark,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President and CEO of Mote. “Her fascination with fishes and dedication to research changed marine science forever; her life story set an example for women in science and countless others who are striving to make a positive impact; her graciousness and warmth opened hearts and made ocean knowledge more accessible to many; and above all, her leadership and legacy sparked a tradition of world-class marine research and education that will continue for generations. Her passion for science and her freedom to pursue that science at Mote continue to inspire us all.”

“Genie was an amazing woman — her initiative, intelligence and enthusiasm have always been the heart of Mote,” said Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, the longest serving president in the Mote’s history. “As a graduate student in India in 1970, I knew about the reputation of Mote Marine Laboratory as the ‘leading institution in ichthyology and shark research’ from the great scientific publications by Genie and other scientists at the Lab. When I moved to nearby Anna Maria Island in 1975, I aspired to, and was fortunate enough to become, part of the Mote family. To me, Genie has been a great mentor, friend and a true inspiration.” Mahadevan served as Senior Scientist starting in 1978 and became the Lab’s CEO from 1986 to 2013.

“Genie was affectionately known and respected as the ‘Shark Lady’ because her shark research was so innovative and she was dedicated to teaching the truth about sharks,” said Dr. Robert Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote. “In the early days of Mote Marine Laboratory, Genie discovered that sharks could be trained to learn visual tasks as fast as some mammals. This was groundbreaking knowledge, which Genie published in the top scientific journal Science.  Through her singular efforts, Genie established Mote's 60-year legacy in shark research, ultimately leading to Mote's designation by the U.S. Congress as the site of the nation’s only Center for Shark Research. We are all extremely grateful to her and will miss her inquisitive, energetic and loving spirit forever.”

From Aquarium Visits to International Research

From the beginning, Clark’s curiosity was stoked by fishes and the oceans. Born to American father Charles Clark and Japanese-born mother Yumico Mitomi in 1922 in New York, Genie Clark visited New York Aquarium at Battery Park for the first time at age nine. She was fascinated by the sleek, streamlined sharks, the other fish of many shapes and colors and the stories she had read about early explorers of the underwater world. She began sharing what she learned about the fish with others.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Hunter College in 1942 and applied to graduate school at Columbia University, but she was rejected by a department chairman concerned that she would leave her career in science to raise a family.

“I never let being a woman — even as a young girl — stop me from trying to do something I really wanted to do, especially if it concerned fishes or the underwater world,” Clark said in 2009.

Several leading scientists understood her great potential early on. Clark was accepted to New York University (NYU) and guided by eminent ichthyologist Dr. Charles Breder, Jr., who became her lifelong mentor and friend. She earned her Master of Arts in Zoology in 1946 studying the puffing mechanisms of blowfish. Dr. Myron Gordon, an internationally renowned fish geneticist, took Clark on as a research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History and sponsored her Ph.D. research at NYU. Clark earned her doctorate in Zoology in 1950 studying platies and swordtails — the same types of fish she had kept in her home aquarium as a child.

In the early 1940s, she took her first dive as a research assistant to Carl Hubbs at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. Hubbs allowed Clark to go underwater in a helmet and face mask. The diving hose ruptured, leaving her gasping and nearly fainting before she managed to remove the helmet and float to the surface. Shortly after that frightening dive, Hubbs encouraged Clark to try again, and she showed her courage. “And so, when the helmet was fixed and after a short rest which didn’t allow my fears to become too deeply rooted, I went down again,” and again, and again, Clark wrote. She took dozens more dives with helmets and then with ever-advancing gear. Diving became a hallmark of her career.

“She would go on to study several fishes in the wild for much longer than others were doing — sometimes for entire days with relay divers,” said Dr. Jose Castro, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who is writing a biography of Clark based in part on their many conversations. “Most ichthyologists were cataloging dead fishes when she started her career, but Genie used her imagination, and her education from some splendid mentors, to study living fishes in their environment and in the laboratory.”

In 1949, Clark successfully applied for a project through the Pacific Science Board and the U.S. Office of Naval Research to study fishes, particularly poisonous species, around the Pacific Islands of Micronesia. She honed her skills for free diving and learned about local fauna from the resident spear fishermen.

In a photo from these adventures, “Genie is sitting down, drinking Kava, making friends with the chiefs and local people,” wrote famous oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle in her online tribute to Clark, a longtime friend and colleague. “She truly became their friend, and so they shared with her essential knowledge about their local ecosystems and ocean wildlife.”

In 1950, Clark undertook her first expedition to study fishes in the Red Sea — an area so under-studied then that Clark called it a “virgin sea” and was thrilled to document its fishes, knowing U.S. museums at the time had “no representative collections from this area.”

A Little Lab in Florida

Clark described her early studies in her first book, “Lady with a Spear,” which became a best seller and was translated into Italian, Japanese, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic and Braille.

The book greatly inspired philanthropists Anne and William H. Vanderbilt, residents of Manasota Key, Fla. whose young son Bill Jr. kept home aquariums. In 1954 the Vanderbilts asked Clark to give a lecture in Englewood.

“They invited me to come give a lecture about this little marine lab I studied at for a year on the Red Sea, that was part of the University of Cairo's marine program,” Clark recalled in 2014. “Englewood was a small town then, and they didn't know if many people would come to my lecture and they were going to hold it in a small room, (but then) they had to open the whole school and people were hanging outside the windows looking in. They were fascinated — the fishermen, families, children — they all just loved hearing about fishes in the Red Sea and the exotic places I had been to.”

On the eve of her lecture, she learned that the Vanderbilts invited her to Florida with the idea of starting a marine laboratory.

“How often do you get an offer like that?” Clark said. Naturally, her answer was yes. She and her family moved to Florida, and with the Vanderbilts’ support, she opened the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in January 1955 Placida.

“In those days, local people had no place to find out about anything strange that happened on sea or washed up on the beach, or they had to go to a university way out of town,” Clark said. “The Lab was so popular. We started with one room not much bigger then this room,” she said, gesturing to her modern office space at Mote, “and it doubled in the first year, tripled in the second year, and we had teachers wanting to bring their classes down and fishermen coming over with all the unusual fish that they found. I had a little ‘museum’ area where I preserved all the unusual things that were brought to me.  The newspapers loved the news that we brought up because it was about the sea. The people in this area just loved the sea.”

Clark’s sole assistant at the beginning was Beryl Chadwick, an avid big-game fisherman and charter captain. When researchers called seeking shark specimens from the new Lab, Chadwick delivered easily.

“If you didn’t ask him questions, you couldn’t guess the wealth of knowledge and experience in this quiet man,” wrote Clark in her 1969 book “The Lady and The Sharks,” which described her early days at the Lab. “Beryl told me of some fish he used to find as a boy — fish that lived among clusters of oysters, in tin cans and bottles, and in the pile of discarded clamshells in the bay beside his home. He wanted, as much as I, to have a whole room for aquariums with running sea water and large fiberglass tanks, where we could keep and study many of these small fish. He had started already to construct the pipe lines and pumping system for our new lab room.”

During the early years, Clark’s adventures amazed the community. She dissected a 2,200-pound manta ray on the Sarasota City Pier while surrounded by spectators; dove deep into the freshwater Warm Mineral Springs and Little Salt Springs with retired Lt. Col. Bill Royal and helped discover human remains thousands of years old; studied a strange fish called Serranus subligarius that could switch sex in as little as 10 seconds and fertilize its own eggs; and much more.

In 1958, Clark began one of her most innovative and famous studies: Showing that sharks could learn through training. In general, “she was the first to study the behavior of large sharks experimentally in a lab,” said Castro of NOAA.

She trained large sharks in her lab pools to press a special target for a food reward, and later to choose between targets of different shapes and colors. The sharks learned quickly, showing they had more sophisticated learning abilities than most people believed — and they were far from mindless eating machines. Her research appeared in the top-level, peer-reviewed journal Science.

How Mote Marine Lab Got its Name

In 1960, the Lab moved to Siesta Key and continued to grow, drawing hundreds of visiting scientists from the U.S., Germany, Israel and elsewhere, along with numerous students.

In these early years, Clark was raising four young children fathered by her second husband, Ilias Konstantinou: daughters Hera and Aya and sons Tak and Niki. Rather than leaving science for family life, Clark melded the two expertly, bringing her children on research expeditions around the world. During an expedition to the Red Sea in the 1960s, Clark discovered a new species of sand fish and named it Trichonotus nikii, after her son Niki, the youngest of expedition team.

Clark’s children all became avid divers and learned a lot from their mother’s enthusiasm for her career.

“My mom was like my best friend,” said Aya Konstantinou, who is now a captain for United Airlines. “She gave me the ability to believe I could do whatever I wanted to.”

In the late ‘60s, the Cape Haze Marine Lab continued to transform as new leaders took the helm and Clark moved north, becoming an associate professor in the Department of Zoology at City University of New York while maintaining a close connection to the Lab. Clark’s mentor, Dr. Charles Breder served as interim director in 1965, and Dr. Sylvia Earle served as interim director in 1966. In 1967, Dr. Perry Gilbert took the helm as director.

Meanwhile, William R. Mote — a successful transportation executive, avid fisherman and Tampa native — had moved from New York to retire in Sarasota. Mote became fascinated with the Lab and cared deeply about giving back to the sea he loved. He began dedicating significant time, talent and financial resources to supporting marine research, and provided new land for the Lab to expand. In 1967, the Lab adopted his family name: Mote Marine Laboratory was born.

In 1978 the Lab moved to its permanent home in Sarasota. Over the decades, its research has gone global under the talented leadership of subsequent directors Dr. William H. Taft, Dr. Richard Pierce (interim), Dr. Robert F. Dunn, Dr. Kumar Mahadevan and Dr. Michael P. Crosby. Today the Lab’s 36 Ph.D. scientists and numerous other staff study sharks and many other fishes; develop innovative technology for sustainable aquaculture, environmental monitoring and other purposes; advance biomedical research using marine sources; study coral reefs and plant thousands of coral fragments for restoration; and work with sea turtles, marine mammals and other crucial marine species and habitats. The Lab shares its research with the world through Mote Aquarium, an informal science education center that helps people of all ages become more ocean literate — just as Clark did.

Through it all, Mote has remained an independent nonprofit institution — the type of environment that allowed Clark to pursue her passion.

“If Genie had not started the Lab, our understanding of the marine life there would be significantly less,” said Dr. William Tavolga, who knew Clark since the 1940s and visited the Lab while working for City College of New York in 1956. “She was a dedicated scientist, and I got to see her grow. She was a pioneer, but she was never trying to prove anything. She was just doing her thing.” Tavolga, an expert sound production and hearing in fishes, ultimately joined the staff of Mote. Today he is 93 years old and a Mote Emeritus Senior Scientist.

From the Classroom to the Ocean Depths

In 1968 Clark began teaching at the University of Maryland, where she became a favorite among students. When she took roll for her class, she ended up with a longer list of attendees than students enrolled. She stopped taking roll.

“She had a unique ability to communicate science,” said Dr. Arthur Popper, Professor Emeritus & Research Professor at the University of Maryland, who was previously one of Clark’s students. “She did something that most of us couldn’t conceivably do — to get people excited about science, in such a way that the excitement stayed after she left. Now, if you go and look at elementary school science books, when they feature a woman, it is often Genie.” 

“As a grad student, I bumped into her in the hall at the University of Maryland, and she was surrounded by students and others,” said Mote CEO Crosby. “She had a big smile and a sparkle in her eye. This unbelievable scientist who had been around the world — she had no hint of arrogance.”

Amid teaching, Clark led exciting research expeditions in more than 20 countries and shared her work by writing 12 articles in National Geographic. In 1975, Clark appeared on the magazine’s cover, closely examining a large shark with her hand on its dorsal fin and her face close beside it.

That was one of the mysterious “sleeping sharks” Clark studied in underwater caves of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, accompanied by her daughter Aya, student Anita George and photographer David Doubilet. About 65 feet down in the caves, requiem sharks and other open-water sharks lay on the bottom and allowed the divers to come close and even touch them. It was previously believed that these species needed to swim continuously to move water across their gills, rather than expend the energy to pump water across them. Clark concluded that fresh water from the cave bottoms was likely loosening parasites on the sharks, helping other fish clean them off — a reward worth the extra energy cost.

Her adventures never ceased, Clark wrote in the 2010 edition of “The Lady and the Sharks.”

“Over the years, I’ve dived with more than 50 whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef, Australia and near LaPaz, Mexico (the largest 50 ft. long), dived with over 30 white sharks in south Australia (in cages from which I could reach out and pet them), been chief scientist in charge of 72 submersible dives to study deep sea sharks.”

Clark’s 24-year-old grandson, Eli Weiss, remembers joining “Granny Genie” on her research dives, raising the bar for “grannies” everywhere:

“We spent a ton of time together, going on dive expeditions — she took me swimming with the whale sharks in Mexico when I was very young,” Weiss said, recalling the gentle, plankton-eating giants that many people associate with Clark.

“When I was just old enough to be scuba certified, I dove during her research trip to study the convict fish. That was really cool.”

The mysterious convict fish delighted Clark. She spent long hours underwater trying to unlock the secrets of the adult fish, which almost never leave their burrows, and the swarms of juveniles that leave and return — possibly feeding the parents. The convict fish’s adult size, behavior and natural habitat were unknown to science until field studies by Clark and her colleagues.  

Clark also conducted groundbreaking research on sand fishes, particularly in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba. In the early 1970s, she found that one species called the Moses sole naturally repelled sharks. “Her discoveries stoked the fires of marine science,” said Hueter of Mote. “Her findings about the Moses sole helped others in 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.”

Returning to the Red Sea, Diving at 92

Clark became a champion of conservation for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba. She advocated preserving the Ras Mohammad area of the Red Sea, which had stunning coral reefs. Her voice provided crucial support and the area became Egypt’s first national park in 1983. Today, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba remain critical areas of focus for Mote.

In Eilat, Israel, Dr. Maoz Fine remembered the impact of Clark’s visits to the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI), an important hub of Red Sea research. “Genie was one of the pioneering scientists at our Institute and spent many days in Eilat and the Red Sea which she loved very much,” Fine wrote in a tribute online. “Just last year Genie celebrated her 92nd birthday (May 4, 2014) diving at the IUI on her old research sites with friends and colleagues.”

Mote CEO Crosby accompanied Clark to celebrate her birthday and forge a new research partnership between Mote and IUI.

“I dove with Genie in the Gulf of Aqaba,” Crosby said. “With her age and her health concerns, the hardest thing for her wasn’t the dive — she was a very experienced diver — it was mainly getting the gear on and getting into the water. I helped her and we walked arm and arm. The minute she was underwater, she was as graceful as a ballerina. Her buoyancy control was perfect. She spotted a camouflaged leafy fish the rest of us missed. The minute she was underwater, she was in her 20s again.”

“Eugenie Clark was the cause of my fascination for sharks,” said Dr. Avi Baranes, a renowned shark scientist who served as IUI’s director for many years. “I was extremely lucky to meet her in Israel and to become her student for my master’s degree.” In the Gulf of Aqaba, Baranes helped Clark study the shark-repelling Moses sole, monitoring whether sharks ate or avoided the fish during the night. Baranes became a close friend of Mote CEO Crosby when Crosby led the Red Sea Marine Peace Park Research Program in the Gulf of Aqaba, decades after Clark’s first studies there.

News of Clark’s death spread quickly throughout the region.

“Marine fellows from all over the country are calling us,” said IUI’s current Scientific Director Dr. Amatzia Genin. “Genie's presence here built bonds even before our own buildings existed, up to that unforgettable and exciting visit to Eilat last year by Genie, Michael and Mote friends.”

Last Dive

Clark dove one more time. In June 2014 she brought a team of volunteer research divers to study deep water triggerfish in the Solomon Islands. The divers had been searching for nests and monitoring how the fish behaved.

“That’s where Genie did one dive to 84 feet — that was nothing for her,” said Rachel Dreyer, Clark’s assistant, friend and pupil at Mote during the past five and a half years.

“In that area we hit the jackpot,” Dreyer said. “Our dive guide Lisa Choquette found an area with 93 active nests. Before that, the most Genie had found was 27. Genie got to see the nesting area. She didn’t feel up for a second dive, but she had the same adventurous spirit where she wanted to know everything that was going on.”

Later, if friends called that her last dive, Clark would say: “You’re so pessimistic.”

Her paper “Nesting sites and behavior of the deep water triggerfish Canthidermis maculata (Balistidae) in the Solomon Islands and Thailand” was published in the journal Aqua in January 2015, just weeks before she died.

“She had other research still in review,” said Mote CEO Crosby, referring to a paper on Bonaire razorfish. “She was an active and productive scientist until she left our great blue planet.”

“She was one of the most interesting American women of the 20th Century,” said Castro of NOAA.

“Before she died, she was just the way she was in the ‘40s: humble,” said Tavolga of Mote.

“She called sharks magnificent and misunderstood,” said Aya Konstantinou. “She wasn’t misunderstood, but she was magnificent.”

More about Dr. Eugenie Clark

Clark is the recipient of three honorary degrees and numerous awards including The Explorers Club Medal; the Medal of Excellence from the American Society of Oceanographers; The NOGI award in Arts from Underwater Society of America; the Dugan Award in Aquatic Sciences from the American Littoral Society; a Gold Medal from the Society of Women Geographers; the Distinguished Fellow Award from the American Elasmobranch Society; and the Franklin L. Burr Award from the National Geographic Society. Several fish species have been named in her honor: Callogobius clarki (Goren), Sticharium clarkae (George and Springer), Enneapterygius clarkae (Holleman), and Atrobucca geniae (Ben-Tuvia and Trewavas).

For a longer list of her honors and research publications, please visit Clark’s bio page. Mote is in the process of updating this information.

Remembering Dr. Clark

In lieu of flowers, you can honor Clark’s life by supporting her Lab through the Dr. Eugenie Clark Memorial Research Endowment Fund. You can also share your thoughts and memories about Dr. Clark by emailing Mote will share these notes with her family and may use a selection in its public outreach.