Dive into the story of scientist Eugenie Clark with the National Postal Museum and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Learn about Clark’s remarkable life and the importance of shark research and protection through a children’s book, photos, and postage stamps.
Stamp Stories: Eugenie Clark, Shark Lady
Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.
Matt: And I’m Matt from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on a wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about Eugenie Clark, who devoted her life to studying sharks.
Matt: I’m excited to talk with you about Eugenie Clark today, who became known as the Shark Lady for the amazing work she did studying and caring for sharks. Many people think of sharks as dangerous creatures, but the Shark Lady helped us all learn how amazing they are and how important that they are for keeping the oceans healthy.
Maureen: Let’s learn more about Eugenie Clark by reading a book about her life. This book is called Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist. Written by Jess Keating, illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns. Special thanks to Sourcebooks, Incorporated for permission to use this book.
It was Saturday, and Eugenie wanted to stay at the aquarium forever. She wanted to smell the damp, salty air and stare at the glittery rainbow of fish. She wanted to keep watching her favorite animals…the sharks.
Eugenie pretended she was walking on the bottom of the sea. What would it be like to swim with her sharks? To breathe underwater with gills of her own? More than anything, she wanted to find out.
When the summer came, Eugenie’s mother took her to swim at the beach in Atlantic City. Stuffing gum into her ears to keep the water out, Eugenie dove, …down, …down, …down.
The salt stung her eyes but she didn't want to miss a single fish. Constellations of sea stars speckled the pebbled sand. She imagined a silvery fin standing strong on her back, slicing through the ocean current.
To others, sharks were ugly and scary. But Eugenie knew they were beautiful. As she glided through the cool water, she wished everyone could see sharks through her eyes. But the sharks were only in her mind, for now. Eugenie decided to learn everything she could about them. So she dove…
…this time into books. Whale sharks. Nurse sharks. Tiger sharks. Lemon sharks. Eugenie wanted to know about them all. She also joined the Queens County Aquarium Society as its youngest member. Eugenie's notebook was filled with sharks. They swam in her daydreams and on the margins of her pages.
At home, Eugenie’s mother surprised her with an aquarium of her own. A 15-gallon tank was much too small for sharks, but Eugenie saved her allowance to buy guppies, clown fish, and coral-red snails. It felt as big as an ocean in her room. Their apartment became an aquarium, a laboratory, and a sanctuary.
As she grew older, many were still telling Eugenie what to do. Forget those sharks. Be a secretary! Be a housewife! Eugenie wanted to study zoology, but some of her professors thought women weren't smart enough to be scientists or brave enough to explore the oceans. And they said sharks were mindless monsters. Eugenie knew better. Her dream was as big as a whale shark. So again, Eugenie dove.
She plunged into every course she could. Her laboratory became her home. From sunrise to sunset, she studied how fish grow, how they behave, and how they were put together, both inside and out. Despite all of the people who didn't believe in her, Eugenie was becoming one of the smartest students in her field. Even after she earned her degree, many still doubted her.
But Eugenie's work was just beginning. Eager to make discoveries of her own, Eugenie finally dove into the open ocean. In the Red Sea, Eugenie collected hundreds of fish, including three new species that had not been discovered before. On a research mission exploring the Palau Islands, Eugenie was diving alone when she encountered her first ever wild shark. She wasn't afraid. Instead, she thought it was beautiful.
In Isla Mujeres, she dispelled the myth that sharks must keep moving to stay alive when she swam through dark caves - still and silent - full of resting sharks. Eugenia's daring heart grew bolder with each dive. Soon, they began to call her “Shark Lady.” Eugenie had proven she was smart enough to be a scientist and brave enough to explore the oceans.
As her courage grew, she began to love and understand her beloved sharks more and more. But she never forgot many still believed that sharks were mindless killers. Because of their scary reputation, humans were hunting sharks all over the world. Eugenie knew that sharks weren't stupid or mean. She was determined to prove everyone wrong.
Eugenie fished through her mind and devised a brilliant experiment. Could she train a shark the way a person trains a dog? Were sharks much smarter than anyone knew? They were. Eugenie was the first scientist in the world to train sharks and even learned they could remember their training for at least two months after.
Sharks were not mindless killers. Sharks were beautiful. Sharks were smart. They deserved to be studied, protected, and loved. And Eugenie's dream was now a dream come true.
Matt: The book we just heard showed us that Eugenie Clark spent her life studying sharks and working to protect them. That’s also an important part of the work we do at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. You can see from this photo of our facility that we have four square miles of land along the shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay. We have a research facility and an educational center and we’re located in Edgewater, Maryland. Our location gives us a lot of opportunities to study animals that live in both freshwater and in the ocean, and also animals and plants on land. And it helps us teach people about these animals and the ecosystems they need to survive.
One of my areas of study is sharks, just like Eugenie Clark. On one of my first shark research trips, I traveled to the Indian River Lagoon in Florida to work with a team studying juvenile bull sharks. Here we are on the boat, looking for sharks. I’m the one wearing the tan hat. Bull sharks are one of the few shark species that can swim from salty ocean waters into freshwater rivers, and juvenile bull sharks like to spend most of their time in the brackish coastal areas like the lagoon, where freshwater and saltwater mix.
We fished with nets to catch the juvenile bull sharks, bringing them onto our boat and putting them in large, blue plastic baby pools. On this trip we caught about 20 sharks. You can see two of them in this picture.
We measured and weighed the sharks, and then attached tags that would allow us to track their movements. Then, we released them and waited to find out where they went. The tags don’t hurt the sharks, and they give scientists really valuable information about how sharks live their lives.
The team member in this picture, Michelle Edwards, analyzed the data from the sharks for her graduate school research. She found that they stayed in the protected Indian River Lagoon for two years after we released them, except for a few weeks in winter when it got really cold and they went out to the ocean, where it was warmer. Michelle’s research helped identify new juvenile nursery habitats, which hopefully will be protected so that juvenile bull sharks can grow up there peacefully for many years to come. This is just one small example of a shark research project, and Eugenie Clark is famous for traveling the world for hundreds of exciting projects.
Maureen: Thanks so much for sharing all of that, Matt! It’s fantastic that the Smithsonian is helping to carry on the research that Eugenie Clark did during her life. She conducted so many expeditions and groundbreaking experiments that helped everyone to better understand sharks. To honor all of her achievements, the United States Postal Service issued this postage stamp of Eugenie Clark in 2022. In the photo of her on the stamp you can see she has on a mask and snorkel. This reminds us how much she loved to be in the water, learning as much as possible. The stamp also has a lemon shark on it, in recognition of the amazing animal Eugenie Clark devoted her life’s work to.
Eugenie Clark’s favorite animal has been celebrated by the United States Postal Service, too. In 2017 the Postal Service issued a set of stamps that featured five different shark species. But that’s only a tiny fraction of the number of shark species that we know of. There are over 500 species of shark in the ocean today, and unfortunately many of them are threatened or endangered. That’s what makes the work that Eugenie Clark did, and that Smithsonian researchers continue to do, so very important. As apex predators, sharks help to keep other marine life in balance, and without sharks the ocean and our entire planet would be much less healthy. Sharks need our protection, and the more we know about them, the more effective we can be.
Let’s learn a little more about the five species we see here. Each one is unique!
Mako sharks are the fastest species of sharks. They are very good hunters who swim alone in the open ocean. They can leap up to 20 feet out of the water.
Thresher sharks use their long tails to stun their prey. During the day they usually stay in deep water, and they come close to the surface at night to hunt small fish.
Great white sharks are the largest predatory fish in the ocean. They have a very strong sense of smell and can swim up to 15 miles per hour.
Whale sharks are the largest non-predatory fish in the ocean and are often called “gentle giants.” They feed on plankton and travel long distances to find enough food.
Hammerhead sharks are easily recognized by the shape of their head and the placement of their eyes. Having eyes on both sides of their head helps them see better for hunting, and they have sensors in their head that help them detect prey buried in the sand.
All of these sharks are fascinating, and as we’ve learned, they are so important to the balance of life in the ocean and on land. Countries all over the world have recognized the value of sharks by putting them on postage stamps. Here we see a tiger shark on a stamp from Tanzania, a blacktip reef shark on a stamp from Sri Lanka, a leopard shark on a stamp from Palau, a basking shark on a stamp from Canada, and an oceanic whitetip shark on a stamp from British Indian Ocean Territories. These postage stamps help raise global awareness of the true story of these beautiful creatures, so perhaps one day all 500 shark species will be healthy and protected.
Matt: That was fun learning about Eugenie Clark and making connections to the Smithsonian! If you’d like to learn more about the work that the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center does, you can visit our website.
Maureen: Thank you so much, Matt, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. You can learn more about shark and ocean stamps by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website, and you can also learn about all kinds of topics there. We encourage you to just keep exploring!