"Octopus can really mess with your head, and not always in a good way," Jack Rudloe said, standing beside one the large saltwater tanks at Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea. "They are extremely intelligent, and if they lived longer, we might be in trouble." Rudloe described how octopus at the lab played with various toys, how they were escape artists, and how they started waving at a visiting marine scientist whenever she walked past.
Octopus are one of several marine creatures often featured at Gulf Specimen, and certain animals become favorites. Take Allie, the 250-pound loggerhead sea turtle. Allie was caught by fishermen last May because she couldn't sink, her lungs infected with pulmonary pneumonia. Few turtles survive after becoming "floaters," but thanks to the lab's diligent efforts, Allie's health is slowly returning to normal. "This is part of her therapy," Rudloe said as he caught a live blue crab from a different tank and released it in Allie's large circular tank. "She is getting stronger by chasing blue crabs."
Allie zoomed around her tank after the elusive crab. Finally, Allie caught it with her powerful jaws and chomped down. Lunch. "They don't do this for the public at SeaWorld," Rudloe said, chuckling. "I know it's a bit like playing God, but we hope Allie will be ready to be released by spring." Rehabilitating sea turtles has been a strong part of Gulf Specimen's mission since it opened in the mid-1960s by Jack and his late wife, Anne. Most of the turtles are highly endangered Kemp's Ridleys that frequent Panacea's Dickerson Bay. More than 300 Kemp's Ridleys have been caught, tagged, and released, many of them injured by swallowing fish hooks. In the early years, the hooks were often removed surgically, but Rudloe learned that many hooks eventually pass through the turtle's system, especially if they begin to disintegrate. For this reason, fishermen should not use stainless steel hooks, according to Rudloe.
I first came to know Jack and Anne Rudloe and Gulf Specimen in the late 1970s when we joined forces on some conservation issues. They were always passionate advocates for the environment, and they encouraged my writing. I would venture to say that some of our ecologically valuable coastal wetlands and forests may have been lost to bulldozers, chainsaws and draglines save for the Rudloes' efforts. And they are also about public education, without which the long-term sustainability of our marine resources might be in jeopardy.
Initially, Gulf Specimen was created to provide marine specimens to marine laboratories and for researchers studying cures for cancer and other diseases. But the non-profit company added to their mission by opening up their tanks and aquariums to the public in 1980, soon becoming renowned for their "touch tanks". Visitors, including thousands of school children each year, marvel at the marine life they can catch and hold in their hands. These include various crabs such as horseshoe, fiddler, hermit and calico. Also, there are sea urchins, sea fans, sea cucumbers and star fish that can be touched and held. These sensory experiences increase curiosity and understanding, reducing fears of creatures that may look harmful or scary, but are not.
The lab's website states their intent: "After a visit to our lab, instead of stepping over or on much of the life when they're on the beach, people will notice. No longer will they stare puzzled at the ‘blob on the beach'. They will understand the diversity of life in the sea and perhaps have a desire to protect it."
Education at the lab is enhanced by kiosks about the need to preserve marine habitat, and through reproductions of large murals by artist Christopher Still, an effort funded by singer Jimmy Buffet. Other signs point to the various life forms usually found in the tanks, marine life that includes various creatures that cannot be touched, such as sharks, stingrays and large fish. "View the signs as clues on a treasure hunt," Rudloe said. "Our exhibits are constantly changing, but we usually have most of what is on the signs."
Rudloe did allow a couple of college students studying marine science to hold a small electric ray, and feel a harmless shock. The look of surprise on their faces was worth the price of admission. It's just one of many fun encounters that can occur at Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory.
For more information about Gulf Specimen, visit their website.