Credit the New York Aquarium with Dr. Eugenie Clark’s lifelong devotion to fish. At age 9, she couldn’t fight an overwhelming desire to be in their world: She kept her nose pressed to the tank glass. As an adult, that passion inspired her to become an ichthyologist, writer and explorer. She discovered a fish species in the Red Sea, hunted poisonous fish for research purposes in Palau, and still says yes to deep-sea submersible dives, where she still keeps her nose pressed to the glass.
Q: What has been your favorite shark encounter?
I was out of the water, looking into the shark pen at Cape Haze Marine Laboratory (now known as the Mote Marine Laboratory) in Sarasota, Florida. I realized that our 9-foot-long lemon sharks had learned to push the right underwater target to release food. We had trained sharks for the first time.
Q: You sustained a shark bite while in a car. What happened?
I was driving to a lecture for schoolchildren. On the front seat next to me was a tiger shark jaw. Running late, I stopped abruptly for a red light and stuck my arm out to prevent the jaw from cutting the dashboard. Instead, the teeth sliced my arm. The students that day were most interested in the bite-mark circle from the still-sharp teeth.
Q: What has been your most enjoyable submersible excursion?
As exciting as it’s been to see giant deep-sea sharks from the 80 or so dives I’ve done in eight submersibles, the most thrilling for me was landing our submersible at 9,000 feet deep, praying to see a hooded octopus. Then I looked out and there it was, right beside us.
Q: What do you like most about submersibles?
The thrill of anticipation.
Q: How has the gender gap changed for female scientists in your lifetime?
Tremendously! When I started, I was one of few females in the field — and the only one studying sharks. Now there are lots of female students of elasmobranchs. And the shift in the sex balance can be seen in professional organizations, such as the American Elasmobranch Society, which started out with one female, and now has more than 50 percent female membership. That’s very encouraging!
Q: What was your most surprising discovery?
I found that one fish, the belted sandfish (Serranus subligarius), could change sex from female to male — and vice versa — in as little as 10 seconds.
Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
My four children, the many friends I’ve made in the diving world, and to have a small part in inspiring an interest in sharks and marine life in children. (Her assistant adds that Dr. Clark still receives letters from schoolchildren who have read her story, typically Ann McGovern’s Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark.)
Congratulations to Dr. Clark for winning the Legend of the Sea award at the 2014 Beneath the Sea Expo in Secaucus, New Jersey.