Happy Birthday Genie!

Today is Eugenie Clark’s 90th birthday. To celebrate here is my blog post from last year, after I had the immense pleasure of meeting Genie at Mote Marine Labs in Florida…

They say never meet your heroes. But I did. I sat in a diner and ate junk food with her and it was perfect.

Earlier this year I went to Florida (my first time there). I had the best time hunting for tiny seahorses in Tampa Bay and paid a visit to Mote Marine Laboratory where I grabbed the chance to meet one of my all-time heroes, Genie Clark, aka The Shark Lady.

I love her two books. I have a gorgeous secondhand copy of Lady with a Spear (it even comes with crayon scribbles from its previous owner), which follows Genie as she travelled the world studying fish in her early 20s. And The Lady and the Sharks (which has just been rereleased) follows her adventures setting up the Mote Marine Laboratory in the 1950s.

I’d arranged to have lunch with Genie the day following my talk at Mote Marine Labs – they had kindly invited me over to give a lecture on seahorses. The talk went well but I nearly fell off my chair during the book signing afterwards when who should walk up, clutching a copy of my book, but Genie herself.

Her friend leaned over and said ‘This is Eugenie Clark. She’d like to have her picture taken with you’.

It was one of those moments I could have played cool, but failed completely. I just stammered ‘I know who she is’ then grinned. A lot. Here was one of my all-time ocean heros asking me for a picture and wanting me to sign her book (I’d brought one along for her, which I gave her next day and signed to her kids).

And as we posed for the picture she wrapped her arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. Right then I realised that Genie Clark is different. Different and wonderful. That night I skipped back to my beachside hotel room and eagerly awaited our lunchtime date.

Next day we met in the diner at Mote Marine Labs, overlooked by tanks of tiny gyrating baby seahorses in Shawn Garner’s lab. We ordered junk food, sat in a booth and chatted away like long lost friends. She asked me about my work with seahorses, writing my book, where I’ve been diving. And I asked about her work, about convict fish, and swell sharks that puff up like puffer fish, about what Jacques Cousteau was like, and about the time she took a baby shark on a plane as a gift for the Emperor of Japan.

Genie has just turned 89 (not a big year for her she admitted. 88 was important because the number 8 is special in Japan – her mother was Japanese). Man, I hope I’m still diving and exploring the world in my eighties. After reading her books and learning about her life, it was a curious feeling to meet her now. I could almost picture her life stretching away behind her like a movie, and I’ve just walked on set as a minor character somewhere towards the end of the story.

After lunch we recorded a short interview including a bit that I put in this month’s Naked Oceans podcast. I asked her if she was a marine critter, which would she be, and why… here’s what she said.

The thing I love the most about Genie is she is pure and simply a lovely lady. She put on no aires and graces, she didn’t allude to any personal greatness. She didn’t see herself as a pioneer female scientist (which I truly believe she is), just a girl who loved fish who got a few lucky breaks. She welcomed me into her world and seemed genuinely as interested in me – a lowly marine biologist/writer – as I was in her. I guess it comes down to our shared fascination in the underwater world and a certain amount of geekiness, an obsession with figuring out how it all works.

She hugged me goodbye and I felt happy and sad. Happy to meet her and spend time with her. Sad because I was saying goodbye not knowing if I’d get the chance to meet her again.

So I say go ahead and Meet Your Heroes. You never know, they might just inspire you even more in person than they do from a distance.

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