Dr. Eugenie Clark
On special weekends when I was young, we would go to New Jersey to one of the remaining polynesian, tiki-hut themed restaurants. Adorned with itchy colorful plastic leis, we watched exotic, sizzling pu-pu platters, drinks with paper umbrellas, accordion lanterns, maraschino cherries and canned pineapple slices go by as we ate under thatched awnings lit by colored glass fishing ball lanterns in nets, beside large carved tiki statues.
That kitsch was the most I knew of the South Sea Islands until I read about the adventures of a plucky scientist in Micronesia. She wrote beautifully about the people and her work there, and Lady with a Spear became one of my most treasured books.
Dr. Eugenie Clark, was an ichthyologist at the American Museum of Natural History in NY, and an expert with Pletognatha, of which the poisonous blowfish is a member.
She was hired by the Pacific Science Board (funded by the Office of Naval Research) to collect and catalog “poisonous reef fishes that had been tormenting American troops wading in the surf.”* Sailors were also getting poisoned by eating the fish, of which some are only poisonous depending on the season. She set out in June 1949 for six months.
Her headquarters in the Palaus Islands was the Pacific War Memorial Station. The handyman there was Siakong. Mischievous, troublemaking, “with the power of three Palaus,” and a spearfisherman extraordinaire, he became her guide and protector, and taught her how to spearfish.
They packed neither food nor water for long day outings at sea, for, with the locals’ knowledge, and with the seas as bountiful as they were then, they would catch their meals from the boat, which would satisfy both hunger and thirst. Do-it-yourself raw bar.
One day, Siakong spied a giant clam deep below, and with his homemade goggles on, dived down towards it. Dr. Clark wrote she saw him swim deeper and deeper until his small figure was dwarfed by the clam which measured about 4′ across.
When he did not surface for awhile, she looked over the side of the boat and to her horror, saw him, arm deep in the mouth of the giant clam, caught and held fast. She frantically signaled to the boatman, who looked over and did not understand. She fretted, signaled, panicked and finally stood up in the boat, about to dive over herself when Siakong popped up, holding a part of the giant clam’s flesh in his hands.
The men laughed as she recovered from her terror, and they rowed away, leaving below, a giant clam with a tooth gap the size of a strong man’s arm diameter.
She eventually amassed for the Navy a collection of the most poisonous ones: triggerfish, scorpionfish, lion fish, stonefish, sea urchins, jellyfish, surgeon fish, sea snakes, cowfish, as well as edible fish–before and after monsoon seasons.
Known mostly for her work with sharks, she had said once: “It is one of the jobs of a marine biologist, to make the environment of the sea more familiar and hence safer, through studying and understanding the animals which live in it.”
Making it safer for us, or the animals?