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Stories from Dr. Joe MacInnis and the New York Times


Dr. Joe MacInnis June 2, 2024

Richard Ellis was to fishes what James Audubon was to birds

A self-taught artist and naturalist with a lifelong passion for living things

I met Richard in 1975 when I wrote an article for National Wildlife about taking the first-

ever photographs of narwhals inside the Arctic Ocean. He painted a radiant image of

two narwals to go with the text. In 2012, when Richard was curating the SHARK! exhibit

at the Fort Lauderdale Art Museum, I loaned him an image he’d painted of the

Greenland shark.

In the 37 years between those events we became friends and I fell under the spell of his

insatiable curiosity, love of books, photorealistic paintings, encyclopaedic knowledge

and passion for rumours and gossip. Along the way, I spent time with him in New York,

shared stories of undersea exploration, ate dinner’s at his beloved Punch, flirted with

Stephanie and purchased five of his paintings. Laughter laced all our conversations.

To enter Richard’s Union Square apartment was to be embraced by floor-to-ceiling

shelves jammed with books about the ocean including his own: The Book of Whales,

Great White Shark, Men and Whales, Tuna: A Love Story and Monsters of the Deep.

The ‘friend of fishes’ wrote twenty-seven books, each illustrated with his art.

“Art is how I capture the wonder within the forces of nature,” he told me.

Richard was a guerrilla scholar who amplified his intelligence through continuous study.

I envied his self-tuition rigour. He believed, like Thoreau, that a book should be read

with the kind of care it took for the author to write it. “Books increase our understanding

of the world and ourselves,” he said. “In a sense, we become what we read.”

Richard wasn’t perfect, but behind his ambition and self-absorption was a childlike

fascination about everyday existence that most adults have forgotten. Wide-eyed

wonder was the deep well he drew on to create his lifelike images and enduring words.

The ‘friend of fishes’ shifted the world’s thoughts about the significance of the ocean.

From the NY Times By Michael S. Rosenwald

Published May 29, 2024Updated May 30, 2024

Richard Ellis, a polymath of marine life whose paintings, books and museum installations — especially the life-size at the American Museum of Natural History in New York — revealed the beauty and wonders of the ocean, died on May 21 in Norwood, N.J. He was 86.

His daughter, Elizabeth Ellis, said the cause of his death, at an assisted living facility, was cardiac arrest.

Mr. Ellis had no formal training in marine biology, conservation, painting or writing. But in fusing his artistic flair with an encyclopedic knowledge of ocean creatures, he became an invaluable, sui generis figure to conservationists, educators and those curious about sea life.

“Richard was an enthusiast, and he absolutely adored the natural world, especially the sea,” said Ellen V. Futter, the former president of the natural history museum, where Mr. Ellis was a research associate for many years. “He wanted everybody to share his appreciation and joy from the beauty of it, but also to feel the same sense of responsibility to protect it.”

Mr. Ellis spent much of his life traveling to exotic locales, where he bobbed around on boats and went diving in search of giant squid, great white sharks and other fantastical, elusive deep-sea creatures.

“If people understood the life, the importance, the habits of these creatures — whether sharks or whales or manatees — they would acquire a reverence,” Mr. Ellis The New York Times in 2012. “I do it so people will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ or ‘Isn’t that cool! Look at what octopuses can do!’”

His photorealistic were sold in an art gallery and published in Audubon and National Wildlife magazines and in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His more than a dozen especially his tomes on whales, sharks and tuna — made him, in the view of the best-selling author, the “poet laureate of the marine world.”

Mr. Ellis’s photorealistic paintings of whales were published in, among other places, Audubon magazine, which featured this one on the cover in 1975. That same year, Mr. Ellis painted Sydney Shuman swimming with a whale shark.

Throughout his life, Mr. Ellis was never far from a major body of water. Growing up on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, he swam nearly every day in the Atlantic Ocean, weather permitting. The blue water, and what lurked below, frequently washed up in his daydreams.

“I would be sitting in class, learning about the Revolutionary War — except I was drawing swordfish,” he told a weekly newspaper on Long Island in 2015. “I didn’t think this was going to mark the beginning of my career, but it did.”

In 1969, the American Museum of Natural History hired Mr. Ellis as an exhibition designer and assigned him to help build a life-size blue whale to in the Hall of Ocean Life.

“I thought, ‘OK, how hard can it be?’” Mr. Ellis tThe Times. “There must be all kinds of pictures.”

There were not. Mr. Ellis had to rely on drawings and photos of dead animals, an experience that convinced him that the only way to accurately depict oceanic wonders was to swim among them — even if they harbored a desire to eat him.


In the 1980s, Mr. Ellis was one of the first ocean explorers to swim with great white sharks.

In the 1980s, wearing scuba gear and protected by a steel cage, he was one of the first ocean explorers to swim with great white sharks. He recalled “breathing extraordinarily fast because I’m sure the sharks are going to break through the cage and kill me.” After that fear subsided, Mr. Ellis became filled with wonder.

“You don’t belong here, but it does,” he said. “And then you understand how beautiful it really is, and you spend the rest of your time staring at this animal or photographing it and thinking to yourself, ‘I am very privileged to be able to see this creature in its natural habitat.’”

Richard Ellis was born on April 2, 1938, in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens. His father, Robert, was a lawyer and also worked at the United Transformer Corporation. His mother, Sylvia (Levy) Ellis, was also a lawyer but did not practice.

He spent most of his childhood swimming in the ocean.

Mr. Ellis in 1978. “I had always been fascinated by the ocean and what lived in it,” he once said. “But most of the time, what lived in it was me.” “I had always been fascinated by the ocean and what lived in it,” he told The Times. “But most of the time, what lived in it was me.”

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1959 with a degree in American civilization, he joined the Army. He was stationed in Honolulu and, in his off hours, surfed and swam in the Pacific Ocean.

Mr. Ellis maintained an affiliation with the American Museum of Natural History for much of his life, but he made his living painting, writing and illustrating books. His output was prodigious.

“The Book of Whales” (1980) tells the complex history of nearly every species of whale, accompanied by his illustrations.

In “Monsters of the Sea” (1994), the author and naturalist Janet Lembke wrote in a review in The Times, Mr. Ellis aimed his “insatiable curiosity” at “legend-hallowed behemoths: the leviathan, the polyp, the man-eating elasmobranch (otherwise known as the shark), all manner of sea serpents (including Nessie, the Loch Ness monster) and some great, stranded lumps of flesh called ‘blobs’ and ‘globsters’ for want of more precise names.”

In “Monsters of the Sea” (1994), Mr. Ellis turned his attention to creatures both real and imaginary, including the Loch Ness Monster."

“To biologists,” Mr. Ellis wrote in 2008, “the tuna is the epitome of hydrodynamic excellence.”

“Tuna: A Love Story” (2008) tells the story of how a fish capable of swimming 55 miles per hour became an overfished commodity. “To biologists,” Mr. Ellis wrote, “the tuna is the epitome of hydrodynamic excellence; it is fast, powerful, streamlined, and equipped with specializations that enable it to perform its duties better than any other fish in the ocean.”

To humans, it is tuna salad and sushi.

“What I do is I paint the things I admire,” Mr. Ellis said on the NPR program “Talk of the Nation” in 2008. “Other people shoot them, some people fish for them. I paint them.”

Mr. Ellis married Anna Kneeland in 1963. They divorced in 1981.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by Stephanie W. Guest, his companion since 1989; a son, Timo; Ms. Guest’s children, Victoria, Vanessa, Fred and Andrew Guest; six grandchildren; and his brother, David. He lived on the West Side of Manhattan for many years.

Mr. Ellis appeared on the CNN program “Larry King Live” in 2001 after a shark bit an 8-year-old boy in Pensacola Beach, Fla. “They are dangerous when hungry, right?”Mr. King asked him.

"Not exactly. They’ve been around for roughly 300 million years,” Mr. Ellis said. “And if something moved in the water, it was edible to a shark.” It’s not the fault of sharks that people started swimming in their water.

“If it moves in the water and you’re a shark,” Mr. Ellis said, “you can eat it.”


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