Guard of Sea Life, Armed With Pen, Brush and colors
Richard Ellis was playing tennis in Little Compton, R.I., during the summer of “Jaws” when he got a call from fishermen in nearby Sakonnet. They had a dead shark. Would he like to come down to the pier?
Mr. Ellis, a painter and aspiring naturalist who had designed exhibits for the American Museum of Natural History, including its iconic blue whale, hesitated. He already had lots of material for a book he was writing about sharks. The big fish was probably just a sandbar shark, or a blue.
In 1975, scientists knew remarkably little about great whites, adult or juvenile. But the blockbuster movie had conjured up a stealthy monster with an appetite for human flesh, and a nation of beachgoers had suddenly gone queasy.
“Where’s its mother?” people on the pier asked nervously.
Mr. Ellis alerted his scientist friends at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Narragansett to the discovery and flipped the four-foot baby on its back to expose its belly. The marine scientists wanted it opened up so they could learn about the stomach contents as a way of better understanding the feeding habits of baby whites.
The episode illustrates the tenacity Mr. Ellis has brought to a lifetime of championing — and often demythologizing — marine life. No advanced degrees have aided this ambition, nor courses in writing or painting. His career is rooted in pluck and curiosity.
To date, he has written two dozen books on sea creatures, and has three more under way. His first, “The Book of Sharks” (Grosset & Dunlap, 1975), features the dissection of the baby white.
“He’s remarkable,” said John E. McCosker, chairman of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences and co-author of a shark book with Mr. Ellis. He praised the naturalist as a gift to the public appreciation of science.
“He can handle an overwhelming amount of information,” Dr. McCosker said. “And he’s persistent. You can’t say no to him.”
Mr. Ellis’s build is athletic and his eyes are steady — he is a man who has seen a lot while conducting research in all the world’s oceans and scores of locations, from Patagonia to the Faroe Islands. He seems to prefer standing or moving to sitting. Most of all, he likes to talk. His speech is purposeful and full of rhythm when emphasizing a point.
“I love these animals,” Mr. Ellis said in his study. “I don’t want them maligned. I don’t want them killed. I don’t want them misunderstood. And it became my job, my passion, to eliminate the misunderstandings.”
In the interview, he elaborated on his goals. He wrote the books, he said, “because I believed that if people understood the life, the importance, the habits of these creatures — whether sharks or whales or manatees — they would acquire a reverence.
“I do it so people will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ or ‘Isn’t that cool! Look at what octopuses can do!’ ”
He rifled though his desk.
“Here,” Mr. Ellis said, picking up a scientific article with the title “Underwater Bipedal Locomotion by Octopuses in Disguise.” He laughed.
“The octopus puts a coconut shell on top of itself and walks on two of its eight legs,” Mr. Ellis said, disbelieving.
As for sharks, he argued that they have far more important things to do than to terrorize humans. “If they really ate people,” he said, “no beach on earth would be safe.”
Mr. Ellis’s home study bears no displays of shark teeth or jaws, but it does have mammal skulls, primitive masks and — amazingly, given their rarity — a narwhal tusk.
The spiraled tusks once sold for many times their weight in gold because of their reputation as unicorn horns. In his writings, Mr. Ellis identifies them as the ivory teeth of stocky whales and celebrates them as among the most beautiful objects in nature. He said he got this one from a veterinarian, in exchange for a painting.
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