Richard Ellis Featured in New York Times.

Richard Ellis Featured in New York Times in a special science article.

Following is the text of an article on Richard Ellis published in the New York Times on Aug 20, 2012 . See  

"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. But down he went — and immediately recognized a baby white shark, a perfect miniature of one of nature’s great killing machines.

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.”

Countering Misconceptions

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.

At his home on the West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Ellis — a New Yorker for most of his 74 years — recently reflected on his life as well as some of the characters he has encountered. He called Peter Benchley, the author of “Jaws,” who died in 2006, a good friend, though he deplored his demonization of sharks.

“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. “It walks!”

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.

Richard Ellis may be a lifelong New Yorker, but he grew up with the sights and sounds of the sea. His home was in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, on the Rockaway Peninsula, overlooking the Atlantic; his parents, who were lawyers, encouraged him to play in the waves and to draw whatever caught his eye.

“The passion started early on,” he said. “I loved animals. When I was a small child, that’s what I drew.”

A degree in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania did little to diminish his love of the sea and animal life. He worked for the Philadelphia Zoo and the city’s Academy of Natural Sciences.

His dream job materialized when the American Museum of Natural History, the world’s largest such institution, began sprucing up for its 100th anniversary, in 1969. Mr. Ellis, then in his early 30s, was hired and given the task of designing a centerpiece for its Hall of Ocean Life — a life-size blue whale that would hang from the ceiling, awing visitors with its graceful lines and sheer size. “I thought, ‘O.K., how hard can it be?’ ” Mr. Ellis recalled. “There must be all kinds of pictures.” In fact, there were none. Mr. Ellis found to his astonishment that no one had managed to photograph any whale underwater, much less a blue. So he tracked down drawings, descriptions and photos of dead animals. It took three months to build a model using steel beams, plastic foam, fiberglass, polyurethane and many coats of paint.

Mr. Ellis called the 94-foot-long replica “a great success” and said it would probably be remembered as his outstanding accomplishment.

Moxie and serendipity led to authorship. In 1972, the Encyclopaedia Britannica hired Mr. Ellis to do a series of paintings of wildlife, including sharks. He came to love their shape, poise and efficiency, and began painting them on his own time at his Manhattan studio.

The phone rang. It was Mr. Benchley, then an unknown author. He had heard that Mr. Ellis was portraying a great white. Could he stop by? Mr. Benchley loved the painting and bought it on the spot. He also invited Mr. Ellis to a publication party for his new novel, “Jaws.” A man at the party asked Mr. Ellis what he was working on. A shark book, the painter volunteered, concocting what seemed like a polite answer.

The man turned out to be the president of Bantam Books, and the next day he had a publishing excutive call the painter to commission a work. “The Book of Sharks,” written and illustrated by Mr. Ellis, won immediate praise: The New York Times Book Review called his dozens of representations “striking” and recommended the book as a tonic “for all the recent bilge.” It went through seven printings.

Thus began a life of writing and illustrating books about the myths and realities of sea life — including the threat of extinction that hangs over many species of shark because of humans.

“We’re killing 100 million sharks a year for shark-fin soup,” Mr. Ellis remarked in his home office. “It’s insane.”

“The Book of Whales” (Knopf) came out in 1980. Its cover featured his portrait of a sperm whale, light dappling its body.

That same year, Mr. Ellis was asked to join the United States delegation to the International Whaling Commission, a conservation group. He served for a decade and lobbied hard for a ban on commercial whaling, which the group adopted in 1986. Thousands of whales owe their lives to the moratorium.

His love of sharks re-emerged in 1991 with “Great White Shark” (Stanford University Press), written with Dr. McCosker, then director of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.

“We may be seeing the first inklings of a healthy concern for this unreasonably maligned and misunderstood creature,” the two wrote. New conservation steps, they added, may yet save the “ancient lineage.”

Stories to Tell

Currently, Mr. Ellis is curating an exhibition of shark images and sculptures at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. His companion book, “Shark: A Visual History” (Lyons Press), features row upon row of scary teeth, including a monster on the cover with enormous jaws poised to crush. Those images are by other artists; his own paintings of sharks look more naturalistic — and less toothy.

The book tells of his meeting with Mr. Benchley, and discusses how sharks became “the embodiment of evil.” A handful of random attacks, he writes, led to news media frenzies and mythic portrayals that became part of “our collective consciousness.”

Surrounded by hundreds of books in his study, Mr. Ellis ticked off his new projects — all profiles of sea creatures, great and small.

“The Little Blue-Eyed Vampire From Hell” (Open Road Media), due out in September, details the life of Vampyroteuthis, a small cephalopod of the deep sea so named because of the capelike webbing that covers its arms.

The University of Chicago Press is to publish “Swordfish” early next year.

In 2014, the spindly creature that likes to disguise itself with coconut shells is to take a bow in “Octopus!”

And so on.

Mr. Ellis describes his calling modestly. He says he is simply a guy who likes to paint portraits of sea creatures, that he feels lucky in finding a job that lets him celebrate and protect the things he loves. The multitudes of the sea became “the material for the rest of my life.”

“They were handed to me on a platter,” he adds, “these animals that are misunderstood or hunted to extinction or whatever was happening to them. I thought: ‘Great. Thank you. Thank you for giving them to me.’ ”

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