Who is Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Aquarium? It is not just an aquarium, nor is it just a marine lab, nor a tropical fish shipping plant, nor strictly a sea turtle rehabilitation facility. There is no other aquarium or marine laboratory like it anywhere in the world. It is a tiny, unique facility located in the quiet backwater town of Panacea on the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida panhandle.

School buses arrive daily from north Florida, south Georgia and Alabama; tour buses come from south and central Florida; all bringing hundreds of happy excited kids who stream in to the touch tanks to pick up horseshoe crabs and starfish. They watch our interns and volunteers feed sharks, sea turtles and moray eels. Nothing is more energizing than the laughter of children as they pick up a scallop and watch it open and close its valves, or see a nurse shark snap up a fish. One teacher told us, “Gulf Specimen is the only place where my students don’t use their cell phones for anything but taking pictures.”

They watch our staff busily gathering, boxing and shipping crabs, starfish, urchins and algae to schools, universities and biomedical institutions, and learn about their importance to science. We tell them how we helped to discover anticancer drugs and provided red beard sponges and toadfish that were sent up in the space shuttle. With phones ringing incessantly as scientists and educators order urchins for embryology, and fiddler crabs, sponges and tunicates for their classes, it looks like chaos.

But it’s not. It takes a lot to keep the place running. The staff has to assess water quality to make sure the fish are happy and safe for children to handle. They check the gauges on the pumps, the ultra violet sterilization and ozone units, tweak the protein skimmers to make sure they’re working properly and back flush the sand filters. Our collectors gather specimens with our small boats by diving, trawling and dredging. We grow barnacles and sea squirts off our “Living Dock” and use a lift net to gather jellyfish, squid and anchovies. We also have a very popular and growing summer camp program.
Gulf Specimen is a state licensed sea turtle rehabilitation center. Calls for stranded or hooked sea turtles that require trips to the local veterinarian for care are increasing yearly. During the hard freeze this year, our resources were strained when thousands of turtles washed up along the Florida panhandle. In the course of two days, nearly fifty young green turtles and Kemp’s ridleys were brought into our lab to warm up and get veterinary care. Donations from sea turtle lovers helped to offset some of the expenses. When the waters warmed, hundreds of well-wishers came to St. George Island and cheered as they watched the turtles crawl back into the sea.

It was a glorious thing to do, we love turtles. I have written two books about them, and over the years my late wife Anne Rudloe and I published both scientific and popular articles about them. But caring for them is expensive. Gulf Specimen is not part of the money pipeline that flows into schools and universities. No “line item funding” for us: if anything, we survive on the drips and leaks of the funding pipeline. Our employees are mostly paid in sunsets and the opportunity to wade over freezing mud flats to rescue a frozen turtle or stranded dolphin.
Considering that GSML started in a shack in a remote fishing village with a population of 350, we have come a long way over the past half century. Much has been done. We have added new buildings, including the Mother Ocean building which Jimmy Buffett and others helped fund. We now have a new sea turtle hospital section with quarantine tanks. The aquarium abounds with exhibits and artwork, some from Florida’s renowned artist Christopher Still, who said that Gulf Specimen piqued his interest in sea life when he was eleven and first saw sea squirts squirt.

Large prints of sea creatures from the famous artist Walter Anderson, who lived on Horne Island in Mississippi and drew every creature he ever saw, adorn the walls of our teaching pavilion. Life-like fiberglass models of sharks, fish and sea turtles, and collections of preserved specimens are on display. Through generous donations of our supporters, we have become a popular environmental education center with nearly 20,000 visitors each year. Philanthropists have funded our traveling SeaMobile, with its touch tanks filled with live sea creatures, which enables us to take the sea to classrooms and festivals. Donors have also helped us rebuild and recover from four hurricanes.
gulf specimen, jack rudloe, kemps ridley sea turtles
Gulf Specimen Co-Founder and President Jack Rudloe and his staff ready some Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles for release.
So the question is where do we go from here?

We begin with a master plan. Joe Choromanski, the former vice president of Ripley’s Aquariums, has designed one for us to expand and modernize our facilities and still retain our old-fashioned Florida roadside attraction appeal.

Upgrading our sea water system, will enable us to keep more fish and invertebrates to further entertain and educate our growing number of visitors. We also plan a new classroom and auditorium that will display the works of National Geographic’s famous photographer, Joel Sartore, who has taken hundreds of pictures of marine life at Gulf Specimen for his Photo-Ark project.
gulf specimen, jack rudloe, kemps ridley sea turtles
Visitors will be able to see the 8,000 creatures he’s photographed, including those taken at Gulf Specimen. There will also be a new display highlighting the books and articles written by co-founders, Jack and Anne Rudloe, as well as correspondence from John Steinbeck and other renowned authors.

To accomplish all of this, we need a new collecting vessel that will take us farther out into the Gulf to get a greater diversity of marine animals from deeper waters and to rescue distressed turtles at sea. This larger vessel is also needed to go far offshore to trap octopuses. Visitors tell us that when those in our touch tanks wrap their tentacles and sucker disks around their fingers, it’s a life changing experience. It’s even more fun when we give octopuses a choice box with crabs representing the opposing teams, and watch them successfully pick the winners of the Super Bowl. But it all comes to an end when the octopuses mate and lay eggs and die.
They have a short life cycle of only one year, so we have to collect new ones.

We have been here for over fifty years and hope to be here for another fifty. Generations of kids have come and gone, and now bring their kids and grandkids to Gulf Specimen. There has always been one overriding rule, and that is to “have fun with it.”
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National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation
4419 West Tradewinds Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale Florida 33308
(954) 351-9333 – Toll Free (877) Turtle 3
State of Florida Registration Number CH-2841. Internal Revenue Code 501 (c) (3)
Copyright © National Save The Sea Turtle Foundation, Inc.

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