September 16, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Eugenie Clark

This famous Floridian is founder, Cape Haze Marine Laboratory - now Mote Marine Laboratory; ichthyologist - 'Shark Lady'; Sarasota, age 89

Art Levy | 11/2/2011
Eugenie Clark
"In a way, the movie Jaws actually helped our research. We got more money. It became very easy to get a grant to study the behavior of sharks." [Photo: Mark Wemple]

» I don't work at something because I think it's important. I work at things that, to me, are interesting.

» When I first heard about the Gulf oil spill, I didn't think it would be as bad as it turned out to be, but now I feel very badly about it. They wanted me to fly over it and see it, but I didn't want to. All I would have seen was oil and animals dying.

» When I was 9 years old, my mother took me every Saturday to the New York Aquarium at Battery Park, and I just was crazy about the fish. In the back of the aquarium, there was a big tank with some sharks inside. I used to put my face up against the glass and imagine that I was under water and swimming with them. On rainy days, it was fun because all the derelicts, the bums would come in from the park and hang out at the aquarium. Some of them would ask me questions like: 'Why are you looking at that fish for so long?' or 'What's that fish doing?' Pretty soon, I had a little audience, and I felt like a teacher.

» My health is not too good. I have lung cancer, but I never smoked a cigarette in my life. In 2004, they told me I had four to six months to live. The medicines don't make me feel so great. I've been through I don't know how many sessions of chemotherapy. They tried a new one on me earlier this year, and it made me feel so sick I lost almost a month of work. I'm pushing 90, but I still come to work every day that I don't have a doctor's appointment or feel too sick from the chemo.

» I didn't worry about the sharks after the oil spill because I know they swim kind of deep, and they're capable of swimming away during red tide. The worst danger for sharks right now is overfishing.

» In school, when we had to write English compositions, my teacher would tell me, 'You know, it's so strange. No matter what topic I give you to write on, you always manage to swing it so that it concerns fish.'

» In 1955, we opened the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Florida, with two people, myself and a fisherman named Beryl Chadwick. The tourist bureau down in the Englewood area didn't like the people to know how close to shore we set our shark lines to catch specimens, so we told them we went out a number of miles. But really we caught our sharks within a mile of shore. Twelve-foot sharks were common on our lines.

» I can't think of anything I regret. Everything I've done, I've enjoyed doing. I've had five husbands, four children. I've done it all, but mainly I've enjoyed studying fish and being under water with them, being in their natural habitat, looking at the fish and the fish looking at me.

» I don't have a normal sense of fear. That's why it's kind of unusual for me to be afraid of Obake. Obake is a Japanese ghost. My grandmother used to tell me Japanese ghost stories, and Japanese ghost stories are some of the spookiest in the world. My grandmother was an actress. She and my mother worked with Mary Pickford in the movie Madame Butterfly. My grandmother loved to play the part of Obake. She would take her long black hair and throw it down in front of her face and then she'd open her hair and it was very scary. For the longest time — I think I was in my 30s and had my first child — I was still afraid to go to sleep at night.

» Once a shark came directly at me. I was against a coral reef, and I had two bags of fish and shells I had been collecting. I knew the sensitive part of a shark's head is the tip of the snout — Beryl used to stun sharks just by taking a Coca-Cola bottle and hitting them square in the snout — and so when the shark came up, I just hit it right in the snout, and it turned and went away. That was the only time I felt a shark was coming at me.

» It would be nice if we didn't have to drill for oil in the Gulf. We have this shallow continental shelf on the west coast of Florida, and it would be a real disaster if we had a major oil spill there. It would be wonderful if we could find some other source of energy.

» The other night, I had a dream that it was very hot in bed and I put my leg over the edge of the bed. I thought I was awake and a hand came up and grabbed my ankle. I'm sure that's my grandmother's old stories coming back to me. I woke up frightened and thought of Obake.

» I want to be remembered as a nice person who didn't hurt people — except my ex-husbands, maybe.

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