SARASOTA – Shortly after the formal unveiling of the Forever stamp honoring her mom, Eugenie Clark, on what would have been Clark’s 100th birthday, Aya Konstantinou stood at a podium in the courtyard at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium Wednesday and said, “it’s a wonderful picture of mom and a lemon shark.”
An overflow crowd of more than 400 people watched the ceremony honoring Clark, the internationally renowned marine biologist who was affectionately known as the “Shark Lady,” and founding director of the institution that would become Mote.
Clark died from lung cancer at age 92. The stamp is a composite of the lemon shark photo captured by Reinhard Dirscherland and an environmental portrait of Clark emerging from a dive in the Red Sea that was captured by National Geographic photographer David Doubilet, who was also at the event.
“The lemon shark was really the reason she became known as the ‘Shark Lady,’” Konstantinou said. “She did this primary research in the early ’60s at the south end of Siesta Key, proving they had intelligence, they could reason vertical-horizontal stripes or round-square targets, ring a bell and get a treat.
“One of the things that mom noticed was that the sharks would go ring the bell and they would get the treat and they would throw the bait out in the middle of the tank. It turns out the lady sharks would wait out there and the male sharks would ring the bell – she got a kick out of that.
“She was so amazing and as children, we just grew up thinking she was mom,” she added. “We didn’t realize what a celebrity she was but she sure exposed us to a lot of different things.”
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Konstantinou, her brother Tak and her son Eli Weiss all talked about the celebrated marine biologist.
Current Mote president & CEO Michael Crosby noted that Clark’s extended family was much larger than her biological one – which also includes two other children, Niki and Hera Konstantinou.
“Sixty-seven years ago, Genie gave birth to what became the most amazing independent marine research institution anyplace in the world,” Crosby said, referring to the institution’s founding in 1955 as the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory near Placida.
“A place where next generations of scientists follow in the wave of her legacy, her relentless energy and the passion for the people and the science that she cares about will always remain in our hearts here at Mote, as time goes on.
“Genie was the original foundation of the Mote family and we will miss her greatly but her lasting legacy will continue forever here at Mote.”
The U.S. Postal Service chose to honor Eugenie Clark on a Forever stamp for her career contribution in marine biology, as well as her role as a pioneer on an otherwise male-dominated field, and perseverance in overcoming discrimination because of her Japanese heritage.
Angela Curtis, vice president of delivery operations for the U.S. Postal Service, noted that now the stamps are meant to honor and celebrate the people who represent the best in this nation.
She talked about how a 9-year-old Eugenie Clark walked into the New York Aquarium and was first exposed to the wonders of the sea.
“She knew even then that marine biology would be her life’s work,” Curtis said. “At that time there were virtually no women in the field, but that did not deter her.”
Crosby later picked up the narrative about the little girl who wanted to learn more about the sea.
“That little girl grew up to become a very inquisitive Japanese-American woman who pursued advanced marine science degrees in a field in which she didn’t look like anybody else that was already there,” Crosby said.
“Genie challenged the status quo and always made positive changes,” he later added. “She influenced many who followed her and learned from her. Genie was truly gifted in building deep and caring relationships with those she met along her life, her career and travels.”
Jennie Janssen, an assistant curator at the National Aquarium and president and co-founder of Minorities in Aquarium and Zoo Science, and master of ceremonies for the event, noted that she is a “shark biologist, who grew up wanting to be a shark lady like Eugenie Clark, who now leads a team of shark ladies – and one man.”
Clark left Mote in 1968, after it was established on Siesta Key, to become a professor in the zoology department of the University of Maryland, and taught there until 1992.
She moved back to Sarasota in 1999 and continued her marine research with an office at Mote.
Crosby first encountered her while he was studying for his doctorate at Maryland.
“All of the students would always be gathered around her office,” Crosby said. “She made marine science accessible to everyone and she shared her knowledge generously.”
Crosby and Clark were part of an expedition to the Gulf of Aqaba, where Clark celebrated her 92nd birthday.
“That evening after the dive, Genie got up and started belly dancing – and I have the photos to prove it,” Crosby said. “Her life was indeed an exciting story.”
Weiss, who is Clark’s only grandchild, expanded on memories of her exuberance for life.
“You knew her as Dr. Clark but to me she was just Grandma Genie,” Weiss said. “Grandma Genie was not your typical grandma, she was a force to be reckoned with and taught me so much.
“I am so fortunate to have had so many incredible experiences thanks to her – like diving with whale sharks in Mexico when I was 5 years old.
“I was so excited that day I never took off my mask or put down my camera. Got some pretty incredible shots that day, too.
“She gave me a sense of humor and never was above pulling a prank on me,” Weiss said, then described when Clark first met his wife, Stephanie.
“One time, I brought my now-wife to meet her and Grandma Genie asked her to bring her a certain bone from her collection,” Weiss said. “She asked her to identify it – she was all serious about it – then she explained that it was a baculum and went on a long-winded explanation before finally giggling and saying it was a whale penis bone.”
Both Crosby and Sandi Stuart, vice chair of Mote’s board, noted how the institution’s endeavor all build on Clark’s quest for knowledge and passion for teaching – including the new Science Education Aquarium, called Mote SEA that is slated to open in 2024, on land adjacent to Nathan Benderson Park.
Mote scientists are conducting more than two dozen marine research projects, including the study of sharks, red tide mitigation, protection of sea life such as manatees and sea turtles, and coral reef restoration.
Stuart noted that Mote’s City Island campus will become Mote’s International Marine Science Technology and Innovation park.
“How very proud Genie Clark would be, not only of the cutting-edge research that’s done today but also for our commitment to STEM education and our efforts to attract women and minorities to the field of marine science and technology,” Stuart said. “That was very dear to her.”
Mote is celebrating Clark’s 100th birthday with a variety of events in the upcoming year. (For a complete list, visit https://www.mote.org/genie100).
Earle Kimel primarily covers south Sarasota County for the Herald-Tribune and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription to the Herald-Tribune.