“I made a pact with myself, maybe 25 years ago: Whatever concessions I have to make in life, I have to at least live by water.” – Mark A. Marks, PhD
I am standing on a deck overlooking the Pacific, high above Agate Beach where 4,000- and 5,000-square foot homes are sited for a broad view of the ocean, with forest land on the east. I hear waves roar this far away.
Inside Mark A. Marks’ abode are dozens of underwater shots of this Newport resident’s walk on the wild side SCUBA diving with great white sharks.
“I knew I was always going to live where water makes noise – by the sea, near a river, on a lake,” he tells me, pointing out a half dozen water features he has added to his backyard.
Then he shows me a trellis system he just built for three kiwi trees he has been tending. Then he spots a furry creature by his feet. “Damn. One of my cats got this,” Doctor Marks says, picking up the thumb-sized rodent. “You know what this is?”
I say, “Some kind of vole,” but Marks corrects me — “Sorex pacificus, Pacific shrew. One of my cats got it.”
The house is covered with photos of Marks diving with what is universally deemed a great big enigmatic predator, the great white shark — Carcharodon Carcharias — as well as the artwork of friends and that which he and his wife, Jill, create. Walls and shelves are outfitted with images of sharks, lions, elephants, fish; bleached skulls of any variety of shark and mammal bare sharp teeth to his guests.
He has a personal library – floor-to-ceiling book collections spanning his myriad interests and avocations. I can spot the ocean out two windows.
While we continue our storytelling repartee about many parts of the globe he has worked in, Marks answers a phone call from Newport’s Discovery Tours proposing a naturalist position on their whale watching cruises.
Discovering “characters” on the Oregon Coast is this column’s purview, and expectedly, I find Marks’ life compelling, one lived in five parts.
Marks admittedly used up four or five of his own lives before setting down roots on the coast the first time. The diver acted quickly the first 24 hours in the area:
“In one day, I got a rental house in Toledo and two jobs in Newport,” laughing as he explains how he ended up here in the late 1980s. He worked at the Hatfield Marine Science Center as a lab assistant and then also throwing in as a lab tech at Ore-Aqua, a now defunct salmon hatchery. He has had many jobs in this area since then.
Eventually, while researching shark behavior for a graduate degree, he ended up 11,000 miles away in South Africa, transforming himself into “the first guy diving outside shark cages” with the animal that made Spielberg famous – Carcharodon Carcharias.
I point to a surfboard in his entryway, and Marks quips: “Good observation is good science.” It’s a local surfer’s board, complete with a bite mark from a great white.
Before South Africa, Marks quit the Newport lab gigs, at the urging of a Hatfield Marine Science Center scientist to pursue a degree at Humboldt State University.
At Humboldt, Marks and others founded the non-profit Shark Protection and Preservation Association. The research on Dyer Island — the underwater highway for great white sharks off South Africa — ensconced Marks into the world of TV shows, documentaries and high-level publications utilizing work he loved: studying socio-biological habits of an apex predator like the great white shark.
“It was the wild west,” he said. “I was the only one outside the cages swimming with white sharks.” He shows me still shots and memorabilia from various scientific and entertainment/documentary gigs he was involved in around the world – National Geographic, Discovery, Smithsonian and others.
He’s back here, aged 57, married to Jill, a physical therapist who splits her time in Eugene and Newport. He’s showing me a critter camera, which has captured a bobcat, coyote and cougar traipsing through his backyard. This is a typical hilltop suburb with Subarus, boats, garages and backyard patios.
He still works on white shark behavior off the Oregon Coast, but funding for satellite tags and telemetry collection/analysis is drying up. For now, Marks is happy to be asked to give talks about his research and cobble together jobs as a paid naturalist, including Alaskan and Caribbean cruises with Holland America.
A story with bite: Part II
“Newport is a great place to come home to.”
He talks to me about his more than 30 years – off and on – living here on the Oregon Coast. He asks me if I am going to be okay living in this locale (I recently moved her December 2018 from Portland), since I have traveled the world physically and intellectually. He knows I am a poet, hard-style essayist, activist.
One hard truth Marks and I conjure up in our hours talking is this: all lives are experienced in chunks, or chapters, and success is only measured by failures. Mark A. Marks may be a shark expert and socio-biology adherent, but he also understands the scope of his own mortal life intersecting with others’ lives.
We talk about his dropping out of school, in San Fernando, and then his solo roustabout at age 14 heading to Las Vegas, of all places. “I learned how to survive there. Really hustle jobs and sources of money making.”
Unschooled in the Three R’s sense, Marks ended up getting his GED, and then hitching up in the US Army. We both know military life, my old man in the air force and then army for 31 years. Tours in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
Marks’ numerous military specialty schools, as well as his tutelage with the Rangers, landed him assignments in places like Honduras and Nicaragua.
Jumping out of helicopters, carrying out clandestine military “anti-guerrilla warfare” operations, living out of a rucksack, Marks points out he is more than capable of going it alone and surviving.
Four years later, Marks is veteran, looking for another purpose in life.
That’s what got him to Oregon Coast in the first place – a buddy in Springfield asked him to come out and then told Marks – the consummate scuba diver and surfer – to check out Newport.
Here he was living the life of Nye Beach in the late 1980s, working with Hatfield scientists, and learning more about his inner mettle after years in the army. Marks then heads to Humboldt State and then South Africa for eight years.
I am petting Rainy, a 22-year-old calico Doctor Marks says he got when he was in Arizona, a place where his first wife, Michelle, was finishing her commercial pilot’s training. Nothing is run of the mill for Mark A. Marks: Rainy is from a line of the first test tube cats. Part of a study on increasing the immunity for feline leukemia, Rainy was tagged as a mate. “The test tube cats each had a goat . . . that is, a companion cat from the same lineage who was not part of the drug test. Rainy was the goat.”
He had just finished his second interview with the director of the genetics lab at ASU. “I didn’t get the job as a lab tech, but I got the cat.” That was 1998.
He calls Rainy “Michelle’s cat.”
Before Rainy, came Michelle, love of his life: Eight years away from the states, working on an island, learning about apartheid and the fall of that system, Marks again talks about this next iteration of his life. He tells me he got politically active supporting the cause of Nelson Mandela, and he also explains that as a shark expert, he was not liking what ecotourism and the white shark cage operators were doing to a pristine ecosystem.
He says he was about to go to Mozambique right after closing down Dyer Island lab when he fell in love with an American woman, Michelle, who had come from San Diego to participate in an internship on sharks, a side gig for which Marks made extra money to survive.
“I asked her to marry pretty early in the relationship.”
Michelle went on to learn how to be a pilot while Marks ended up working for Canadian Broadcasting System, BBC Canada, Italian production companies, and Big Fish expeditions. “That’s where I started making money, behind the camera. I created my own little niche market.”
They lived in Florida where his wife was a pilot. Marks traveled a lot to hitch up with film crews.
After Marks tells me about how Michelle died Dec. 19, 2005, off Miami Beach, I went to my computer that night and put in, “Chalk's Ocean Airways Flight 101,” pulling up many details about how his wife perished.
She had been promoted to captain the year before, and the Chalk flight was heading to Bimini with Christmas shoppers including Sergio Danguillecourt, a board director of Bacardi Ltd. (and a great-great-grandson of the rum company's founder), and wife, Jacqueline Kriz Danguillecourt.
All 18 passengers died, as well as Capt. Michelle Marks and her co-pilot, because the starboard wing of the 1947 Grumman G-73T Turbine Mallard ripped off mid-air as the flight just got underway.
He shows me his motorcycles, and one in particular, a BMW, has been outfitted to do long-range traveling. One such trip happened after the last presidential election, 2016, and this hardened ex-Army Ranger and shark diver says he had to “get out of my head space about the implications of a Donald Trump presidency” and decided to circumnavigate the USA and Canada. He chose a counterclockwise course.
The stories he tells me about his time in the south are telling for a baby Boomer who shares his home with two cats, a plethora of animal research products, a graduate student who lets out a room, and his new wife of five years, Jill the physical therapist who live part-time in Eugene.
Clocking 14,000 miles coursing through two countries, and tells me that when he ended up in Boston and then Canada, a kind of purge occurred. “I had been to the south, in the army, but I never would have believed things would really get that backwards.”
We repeat how good anecdotal observation makes for good science and good journalism. I try not insert too much of my own diving history and military experience during this wide-ranging interview.
As I diver, I knew through the work of apex carnivore behavior scientists before Marks’ studies that great white sharks are not mindless killers. Doc Marks reiterates some key points for the average visitor to our coast: Those encounters off the Oregon Coast and elsewhere are usually exploratory bites which happen to hit a surfboard and/or human outfitted in a wet suit unintentionally mimicking the shape and color of a seal or sea lion.
“White sharks use their mouths like a hand; their teeth can feel and explore objects the way we use our fingertips,” says Marks whose Shark Protection and Preservation Association (est. at Humboldt State) has added to the scientific research of shark behavior.
Doc Marks stresses shark encounters are rare off the Oregon Coast. Only 28 incidents (all unprovoked and non-fatal) are listed in the Global Shark Attack File for Oregon. Few involved bodily injuries, and the danger is not total human engorgement (that rarely happens, but has been recorded mostly with bull and tiger sharks) but tissue damage and blood loss in the water.
After Michelle perished in the plane crash, Marks details his attempts at outfitting their 41-foot sailboat (the couple’s dream venue) for blue water sailing and ecotourism. He heart wasn’t in it and he threw in the towel a year later.
He came back to Newport shortly thereafter, and got a permit in Oregon to do research on great white sharks. Nobody was studying whites off the Oregon Coast.
He tagged sharks with satellite telemetry tags and attempted to make a go of the research. He worked with other scientists on salmon shark studies, but his love was and is the great white shark. Animals going back 16 million years, these shark species have different migratory and mating habits, as they evolved to do long oceanic crossings. Marks speculates many of the great whites from the North East Pacific are either not crossing or, if they are, they are not mating with their brethren in South Africa, South Australia or South America.
Marks met Jill online, and the Eugene physical therapist quickly accepted his marriage proposal. “We went in on purchasing a dive-research boat together,” he says showing me the vessel in his driveway. High fuel costs and lack of funders for his Oregon Coast white shark research have been impediments in continuing his research and non-profit.
Marks has been hired several times as on-board naturalist for cruise operator, Holland America, and he says during our interview he was actually supposed to be gone, living aboard a ship acting as Alaskan cruise naturalist. A born observer and naturalist, Marks says there is so much more to observe above the surface in Alaskan waters than the more exotic places in the Caribbean where he has also worked.
“Everything there is happening underwater.”
We each down five or six mugs of French press coffee during many hours talking. The sun is setting as I bid Mark A. Marks farewell.
“Life Interrupted” is no slogan for this Newport resident. He is confident watching birds, tending to plants, reading books and picking up the odd job here and there is a decent life.
It’s clear to me he displays the same dichotomy I have seen expressed by many scientists: “I am a self-confessed lover of all wildlife, but when it comes to humans ...”
I leave with a dozen other conversation starters for which I was ready to confront Mark A. Marks.
Personally, starting a regular “people of the coast” profile column with Mark A. Marks is apropos: real narratives intertwine nascent lives with old ones; dreams with nightmares; the good with the bad; failures as part of one’s successes.
What makes a place like our coast unusually interesting are the people; however, the Oregon Coast plays a large part in shaping the people who were born or end up here.
We talk about a wide range of issues as birds light on many of Doc Marks’ bird feeders and suet hangers that end up attracting more than a dozen species just in my time with him.
I could end this piece with clichés like “just the tip of the iceberg” or “can’t judge a book by its cover,” but I won’t.
“Look,’ Marks said, “if I never did anything else in my life, I could wake up every day with these birds out there as my companions, and with my books, here on this deck, and I would have no regrets.”