Usually, when you see Jack Rudloe in the spring, he’s surrounded by schoolchildren and sea life. Usually the parking lot of Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, the only tourist attraction in the coastal town of Panacea about 40 minutes south of Tallahassee, is packed with school buses and cars with out-of-state plates.
Usually, Gulf Specimen’s founder wanders around with a broad smile, answering questions and offering encouragement as children stick their hands into touch tanks or try to pick up enormous horseshoe crabs.
But these days his parking lot is bereft of buses and no one’s lined up at the touch tanks to see what a starfish feels like. Worse, the various science labs that for decades have paid him to catch electric rays and other sea creatures for study have cut their orders.
“We’ve been in continuous operation for 56 years — until the coronavirus,” Rudloe, 77, told me last week.
Rudloe, who launched Gulf Specimen in 1963 with encouragement from marine biology fan John Steinbeck, has been struggling to keep the doors open with just 10 percent of its normal income. What’s fueling its continued existence, he said, is “pure stubbornness.”
Gulf Specimen is a throwback to the glory days of the Florida roadside attraction, when you could watch regular shootouts at Six Gun Territory, buy a gnarled wooden clock from the Cypress Knee Museum, or gasp in amazement as Ross Allen handled rattlesnakes at his Reptile Institute.
Most of them faded away in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the face of competition from corporate entertainment behemoths like Disney and Universal. Only a handful, like Gulf Specimen, still hang on.
Like Allen, Rudloe is a classic Florida character — knowledgeable, feisty, sometimes profane, often at odds with developers and politicians. He has as many stories to tell as there are fish in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of those stories can be found in his books, which have titles like The Sea Brings Forth, The Wilderness Coast, Time of the Turtle, The Living Dock at Panacea, and The Erotic Ocean. (My mom, an avid reader, shared some of his books with me when I was younger, but never mentioned that last one.) Other entertaining yarns he has spun landed him on Today and Good Morning America or in the pages of National Geographic.
Consider the tale of how he met his wife, Anne.
In 1969 she was a graduate student at Florida State, the institution that had given the Brooklyn-born Rudloe the boot for bad grades before he finished his freshman year. She was diving in the gulf to collect marine life for her studies, and after one trip had stopped at a gas station in Panacea, still in her wet suit.
“I determined that was a female in that thing, and invited her up to my lab,” Rudloe said. She was unimpressed with him until he picked up a bright red sea squirt she had caught and said, “Oh, great, a Polyandrocarpa maxima!”
Because he knew the scientific name, Rudloe said, “instead of my etchings, she came to see my specimens and we went from there.”
They wed in 1971 and she earned her Ph.D. eight years later. Rudloe credits her with the idea of converting his marine supply business into a showplace that offered educational experiences for the public. She died of cancer in 2012, a hard blow that — like hurricanes and the 2010 BP oil spill — Gulf Specimen somehow survived.
Rudloe got his start working on shrimp boats, picking up from the more experienced hands where to look for odd and unusual creatures found beneath the surface. Then he’d collect those and sell them to places like Harvard and Yale. He still refers to himself, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as a mere fishmonger.
He’s picked up other names over the years. He has been characterized as both a “nut” (by a county commissioner) and a “Gulf Guardian” (by the EPA).
Once, while he was at the microphone in a public meeting objecting to a paper mill’s plans for a pipeline to dump pollution into the gulf, he was hauled off by a sheriff’s captain. There’s a species of jellyfish named after him. He has joked that it’s because they’re both so prickly.
In a way he reminds me of Johnny Appleseed, but instead of trees he plants in young minds a fascination with marine biology. Take, for example, acclaimed Tarpon Springs mural artist Christopher Still, whose work often features detailed depictions of Florida sea life. He credits Rudloe for that.
“When I was 8 or 9, my father took me over to meet him,” Still told me. “He started pulling stuff out of the touch tanks and showing it to me — sea hares and sea cucumbers … . That Jack took the time to sit there and pull stuff out and show those things to me, it meant a lot. People who are excited about what they do excite other people, and children are attuned to the genuineness of it.”
With the usual crowds of field-tripping kids kept away by the pandemic, Rudloe has been trying to fill the gap with live Facebook videos showing off some of the wet wildlife he finds so fascinating. One about seahorses drew more than 600 viewers. But Facebook Live videos don’t pay the bills.
So here’s hoping “pure stubbornness” is enough to preserve the endangered species that is Gulf Specimen, the pride of Panacea — if not for Rudloe’s sake, then for the sake of all the kids who haven’t yet learned just how amazing it can be to see a horseshoe crab up close.