Lady with a Spear

by Eugenie Clark

Memoir about her younger years, when Eugenie Clark as a budding marine biologist travelled the world\’s oceans to collect fishes for science. It starts with how her interest in fish was sparked by long days spent at a public aquarium while her mother was working, and she pursued this into university studies. She describes first learning to dive, to use different netting techniques, and most of all, to track down individual fish and capture them with a spear. Her travels for study took her to the South Sea Islands where native fishermen would help her find rare fish. Even when language was a barrier, her requests were usually met with enthusiasm. Many of the natives she met had never seen a white woman before, much less one who was a scientist and went fishing. I liked reading the descriptions of strange, unusual fish and other marine life. The constant killing for collections, not so much. Even though I understand her reasoning why it was important to get all the specimens out of particular chosen tidepool, it is still a bit distressing to read of how the entire population of the pool would be knocked woozy with poison dropped in the water, and then promptly dropped into preserving fluid…. which happened to impress the locals very much. She made careful inquiries of the locals at each island which fishes were good eating (and often sampled them, including raw) and which they assumed were poisonous, and sent samples off to a lab which tested them for poison. It was a survey to find out which fish naturally carried venom, which were only poisonous in certain locales or at certain times of year due to what they ate, and which were not poisonous at all, even though the locals assumed so. At different times she was stationed in marine laboratories, and describes several extended stays in Hawaii, Guam, and on the Red Sea. She explains some experiments done on captive fishes in the lab- to study for the first time the reproductive behavior of guppies, and to learn more about visual memory using marine gobies. Those were pretty interesting. Sharks also come into the book, at the very end when she also talks briefly about meeting her future husband Ilias.

I am not sure which book I like best- this one is certainly less formal, being just as much a travel diary as it is a description of fishing and diving for scientific inquiry. Mostly, it is an intriguing look at marine fishes through the eyes of one who studied them with a lifelong passion.

Rating: 4/5               243 pages, 1951

3 Responses

  1. OOF! Is it normal practice to poison a whole pool of fish all at once in order to collect them? Or is that an outdated thing? I hope the latter! Apart from that, this sounds awesome, and Eugenie Clark sounds very enterprising.

  2. I am not sure. I'd hope it's an outdated method (the time period she writes about is in the forties and fifties). It seemed very useful for science though- they could do an accurate species and population count of the entire tide pool, and find every last fish even the tiny ones or those that hid under things. Some pools she recounts collecting over a hundred individual specimens- you'd never guess looking in the pool there were so many fish in there.

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