Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Speaking of Science: Shark Week

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

It's Shark Week! And confession time. I love sharks. But I hate Shark Week. Every year, Shark Week feels like the latest disappointment in adrenaline junkied PR for an animal that, frankly, doesn't need any more bad press. As a coral reef scientist, I've spent a lot of time with both sharks and shark scientists. The latter are usually a more rambunctious bunch.

An adult Squalus clarkae found in the waters off Belize. (MarAlliance)

Earlier this month, a new species of shark was named after the late shark scientist Eugenie Clark. Clark was a charismatic and pioneering scientist of the 20th century. I wonder what she would think of our modern, flashy Shark Week. She's quoted as saying that the " 'gangsters of the deep' had gotten a bad rap."

[You can also follow Genie The Shark on twitter, named after Eugenie]

"They've got big teeth, but then so does your dog," Clark said in her thick New York accent, in a Mote Marine Lab video

Clark was born in the '20s to an American father and Japanese mother. She started her work as a scientist at a time when women were actively discouraged in the field, and tensions with Japanese Americans post World War II were high. While typing school and secretarial positions were common postgrad career plans for young women in the 1940s, Clark said: "No, I don't want to be anybody's secretary. I want to do that stuff myself." She set out to get a PhD in marine biology.

Eugenie Clark in the field as a young woman. (Mote Marine Laboratory)


Turned away from Columbia University because as a woman she might leave early to start a family, Clark attended New York University. Her scientific accomplishments are many. When she stumbled upon sharks sleeping on the ocean floor in Mexico, she dispelled the myth that all sharks must keep swimming to stay alive. She found a fish from the Red Sea called the Moses sole that secretes a natural shark repellent. She also created the first fish test tube baby.

During my time as a coral scientist, we discovered a large population of whale sharks. They kept swimming over my sites, where I was monitoring Frisbee-shaped corals. Since we were short on staff, the shark researchers had to train me to wield a spear gun and assist with their tagging operation. Gripping a sling shot spear as tall as me and waiting for the captain to call out "shark!" was the most thrilling thing I've ever done.

It was a glimpse into the incredibly exciting world of shark science. One that certainly doesn't need to be pumped up with fake shark attacks and scary music.

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