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Original Issue


Jack Rudloe, out of Brooklyn, fell in love with Florida's unspoiled Big Bend. Now he is becoming famous pioneering the collecting of marine creatures for scientific study

The Gulf Specimen Company is a busy man. The Boston Aquarium ordered gray groupers and red snappers. The New York Aquarium got electric rays, sea bass and bonnethead sharks and is now in the market for a live porpoise. The University of Chicago is a fairly steady customer for frozen sponges and Yale wants live jellyfish and Amphioxus, a slender transparent creature that bridges the invertebrates and vertebrates. Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical School, Michigan State and the University of Georgia regularly buy sea urchins, while the University of California is big on horseshoe crabs, unobtainable on the Pacific Coast. The National Institutes of Health wants sea squirts and bryozoans, ground up and preserved in alcohol. The bryozoans sell for $50 a pound preserved, but they are worth the price because they are used to inhibit leukemia in laboratory rats.

In essence, the Gulf Specimen Company is another way of saying Jack Rudloe, who lives and collects in Panacea, Fla., a small fishing village on the Gulf Coast 35 miles south of Tallahassee. So called because it once boasted supposedly medicinal springs, Panacea is still aptly named. The population is only 600, and beneath the stands of pine trees there is a back-door quiet about the place. You can hear the chug of a crabber coming to unload at Barwick Brothers or the scrunch of tires on a dirt road partly paved with oyster shells. For a professional collector such as Rudloe, or for the angler or hunter, Panacea is the place to be. It is smack in the middle of one of the greatest wild parts left in the United States, the Big Bend Country, sometimes also known as Florida's Last Frontier, the Other Florida or, unkindly, Florida's Armpit.

The heart of the Big Bend curves along the Gulf of Mexico for 150 miles, from the town of Perry to the shrimping port of Apalachicola. Just about all creatures known to Florida since Ponce de León's time are still there: panthers, alligators, bald eagles, wild turkeys, wild hogs and rattlesnakes as big around as a man's arm. The coast is girt with sand fiats, scallop beds, oyster bars and meandering creeks seasonally alive with mullet, red-fish, sea trout, butterfish, speckled perch and largemouth bass that look like Mayor Daley with fins. There are vast acres of lush marsh grasses, haunting cypress swamps and dark mysterious rivers that pour into the sea. With so much of the East Coast given over to highrise hotels, custard stands and power plants, the Big Bend seems relatively untouched and unspoiled.

No one appreciates the Big Bend more than Rudloe. Of tubby build and medium height, he is a man of stature to many of the local crackers. For one, he has been able to prosper by selling the "junk" that fishermen and shrimpers throw back as worthless, and then again he is a smart Yankee, nobody's fool. Folks like to hear him talk, and as a result of his palaver, fishermen who try to peddle him specimens now say brachiopods instead of "sprouted watermelon seeds" and Amphioxus instead of "sand maggot."

Only 27, Rudloe moved from Brooklyn to Tallahassee with his family when he was 14. He attended Florida State University for two months and then dropped out because he found academic life confining. An outdoor enthusiast, he supported himself at first by hunting the north Florida woods for bullfrogs and big "Georgia thumper" grasshoppers which he sold to a friendly biology professor. Nine years ago he got his first order for marine specimens—two dozen live pink shrimp—and he went to Apalachicola, where a shrimp-boat captain took him out on Apalachicola Bay. "After that one night out on the bay I fell in love with the sea and with shrimping, and I never went back to the woods again," he wrote in The Sea Brings Forth, an autobiographical account of his collecting career published in 1968. "To the fishermen the eels, stingrays, hydroids and tunicates were just so much trash. To me this trash was something to learn about, something new and wonderful."

Rudloe set himself up in a dilapidated house trailer and began scratching out a living skin-diving for specimens, hauling a beach seine and culling shrimp trawls. He read scientific books and papers and he sent specimens he did not recognize to specialists for identification. Intrigued by his interest in their research, biologists at Harvard invited him to Cambridge, where he spent several months studying at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Later he took part in a four-month Indian Ocean expedition collecting specimens in Madagascar. In Panacea he made a down payment on an old one-story Army barrack and began converting it into a laboratory. To raise money he eventually sold stock in the Gulf Specimen Company, and in the past few years annual gross sales have risen from $14,000 to $60,000.

The company has four employees: Rudloe, who is president; his mother Florence, an ample lady who can out-cuss any fisherman, the treasurer; Leon Crum, a wiry Panacea shrimper who serves as chief collector; and a general factotum named Stew Fahrney, a strapping bearded youth who wandered in a few months ago. There is no dearth of prospective employees. Strangers are always coming by, especially people who have read about Doc in Cannery Row—they seem to think working for Gulf Specimen would be idyllic. Most of them last only a day or two because professional collecting can quickly become sheer drudgery instead of romantic pursuit. It is one thing to loll along a beach picking up a handful of periwinkles and something else to go through the back-breaking, exasperating labor of digging up 50 ribbon worms, Cerebratulus lacteus, which can stretch two to three times their foot-long length and then break into fragments when handled.

There are people who boggle at Rudloe's method of collecting stingrays. He prefers to wade after them in the shallows with a gig. In a given area there may be hundreds of them, some up to four or five feet wide, and part of the challenge is to avoid stepping on one. Once gigged, large stingrays often turn to charge their attacker, and Rudloe has become adept at leaping from the water at just the right moment. The tail of a stingray can inflict a very painful and deep wound which, unless treated quickly with hot water, grows bigger as the poison destroys living cells. It is this poison that puts stingray tails in demand, and Rudloe sells them to the National Cancer Institute and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, where researchers are trying to isolate the toxic property to see if it can be used as a drug against tumors.

Collecting is largely seasonal. In the winter many animals burrow into the bottom or migrate to warmer water; in the summer, when water temperatures reach into the 90s, the Gulf becomes a sort of tepid bathtub, seemingly devoid of life. Sharks, skates, hydroids, electric rays, octopuses, conchs and white shrimp are creatures of the spring and fall, and they must be collected while the getting is good. Keeping them alive in captivity for later sale can be a problem. The animals cannot be crowded, and the number of concrete seawater tanks at the lab is limited. Moreover, certain creatures have to be segregated. Blue crabs, for example, will dine on scallops and octopuses will eat blue crabs, and so they have to be put in with specimens that are compatible. The octopuses can be kept with clams, and the blue crabs with fish that are not bottom feeders. Stingrays have to be put in isolation because all sorts of creatures can kill them by biting their wings, and spider crabs, which will devour anything, are sentenced to solitary confinement.

Since Gulf Specimen sells just about every creature that walks, sits, crawls or swims in local waters, Rudloe has no idea of what orders the day's mail might bring. A recent morning started with a large order from Brown University for live fiddler crabs. Fiddlers are a popular item, used in a wide variety of experimental and teaching programs. They also make dandy fishing bait but are somewhat expensive to use, inasmuch as they sell for $5 a dozen. According to Rudloe's catalog, the fiddler crab is "the classic animal for demonstrating neurosecretory hormones regulating light adaption and chromatophore changes. Removal of the eyestalks causes lightening [of the shell]. An extract made of eyestalks injected into de-stalked crabs causes a darkening."

Brown needed 1,000 fiddlers just when the supply was down. Leon and Stew unearthed 300 in a sand storage-pit out back, but then Rudloe came in yelling that the crabs were moving alongshore. The three of them raced over in a pickup truck to where the crabs were scuttling through the beach grass. They formed a semicircle and herded the crabs toward the surf. They fell on their knees and scooped up crabs with their hands, paying no attention to the sharp nips. They collected about 500 before the crabs fled to their burrows, but since the day was warm and sunny, Rudloe reasoned fiddlers would be on the move elsewhere, and so they drove to another beach a mile away, where they gathered 600 more. On the way back to the lab they stopped to pick thick strands of Spanish moss off a stand of oak trees. Wetted with saltwater, the moss is used to pack fiddlers safely for long journeys.

The fiddlers in hand, Rudloe stopped off at a local fish house and bought a sackful of fresh oysters. He, Leon and Stew had lunch out on the company pier, where they pried open the shells with thick-handled steel knives, doused the raw oysters with a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce and gulped them down. Leon could hardly believe his luck. "You mean we don't have to pickle these oysters for sale, Jack?" he kidded. "I'll be damned! Jack Rudloe givin' away spec-i-mens to eat. Wouldn't you like to see it? Jack, when your momma dies, I swear you're gonna pickle her. You'll put her in a big jar and you'll get a good price, too. You'll say, 'My momma was sumpin' special.' "

In the afternoon they packed the fiddlers into Styrofoam boxes for shipment to Brown, throwing a dozen extra into each box in case some died on the way. MIT got two dozen horseshoe crabs at $5 each. For all their imposing armament, horseshoe crabs are harmless and easily handled (the whiplike tail is merely a tool the crab uses to right itself if turned on its back), and next to sea urchins and fiddlers, the horseshoe crab is the leading seller. The blood is of interest to chemists as a source of hemocyanin, a copper-based respiratory pigment that turns sky-blue when oxidized. The horseshoe crab is extremely sensitive to bacteria and if exposed to polluted water, the blood will clot and the crab dies. Neurophysiologists also like to work on the eyes of the horseshoe to study the reaction of the optic nerves to light.

The University of Michigan had an order for two dozen large blue crabs. A pinch from one of their claws can make a nasty wound, and Rudloe picked them out of a tank with tongs. Then he artfully grabbed each crab from behind with his left hand and as its claws whipped around, he rolled up the crab in wet paper toweling. Blindfolded, it became inactive. Proper packaging of live specimens takes experience. Sea turtles have to be shipped on their backs because otherwise their heavy shells would press down on their lungs and they would suffocate. The octopus is difficult to ship. He must be gently teased from the bottom of a holding tank into a clear plastic bag. Should he become excited and "ink" in the bag, the water must be changed immediately because the ink is toxic. Once the octopus is inside, the bag must be securely knotted, for the octopus can untie a simple knot with his tentacles.

Collecting octopuses used to be a problem. They can be brought up from the bottom of the Gulf with a rock dredge but this method usually excites them and they start inking and expire. Rudloe likes to catch them in traps made of a piece of clay sewer pipe sealed at one end with cement. The pipes are dumped overboard with a rope attached to a cork buoy. In a few weeks a pipe usually becomes encrusted with barnacles and other organisms, and when so covered it becomes a fit home for an octopus. Then Rudloe pulls the pipe to the surface with the new tenant inside. The octopus is very reluctant to leave home, and so instead of trying to prod him out, which could cause him to ink, Rudloe sets the pipe in a pan of stagnant water and the octopus promptly emerges on his own. Even killing an octopus for preservation requires a special procedure. He must be killed in chloroform instead of formalin so the legs do not knot and become distorted.

After the day's orders were packed and taken to the Tallahassee airport, Rudloe had dinner in his trailer near the lab and passed up a date in order to write. The Sea Brings Forth was a success, and he is now putting the finishing touches on another book about marine invertebrates. He has part of a third book well under way and detailed outlines for still two more. He is torn between writing and running Gulf Specimen, and although he would prefer to write full-time, collecting provides material and experiences for his books.

The next morning Rudloe, Leon and Stew drove over to the marina at Alligator Harbor, where the company's collecting vessel Penaeus is moored. Leon took the Penaeus out into the harbor, a bay seven miles long and four miles wide, while Rudloe and Stew readied the trawl. More than 20 universities have mounted collecting expeditions to Alligator Harbor, and Rudloe regards it as "a biological gem, one of the richest and most productive areas along the Eastern Seaboard." Just thinking about Alligator Harbor can set him going. "The sand flats are glutted with sunray clams, Macrocallista nimbosa" he said, "and the harbor bottom itself has great beds of sea squirts or tunicates, Styela plicata and Molgula occidentalis, in greater profusion than any other area on the Gulf Coast. The tunicates are home to snapping shrimp, xanthid crabs, nudibranch, flatworms, bryozoans, amphipods, isopods, mysids and copepods, all of which are at the base of the food chain for schools of drum, sheepshead, croacker and sea trout. The pink shrimp, Penaeus duorarum, is abundant and the red-footed sea cucumber, Pentacta pygmaea, and the brown-striped burrowing sea cucumber, Thyonella gemmata, are found in greater concentration in Alligator Harbor than anywhere else in Florida. There are sea pansies, Renilla mulleri, and gorgonians, Leptogorgia virgulata. There are diamondback terrapins and spiny boxfish."

Leon was ready to make the trawl. Stew released the lock on the winch, and the net and heavy outer doors swung over the side and splashed into the water. The wire cable ran out over the stern until the trawl bit into the bottom. Leon made a 15-minute run, and then Stew winched the net back in and swung the collecting bag on deck. Bulging with specimens, the bag spilled open and all hands turned to culling the catch for two dozen live squid ordered by Duke University. The squid were quickly placed in an aerated garbage pail filled with seawater. Leon went back to the wheel and Rudloe and Stew carefully searched through the rest of the catch, saving all sea pansies and bryozoans. Rudloe pried open the clumps of potato-like sea squirts, looking for polyclad flat-worms, Prostheceraeus floridanus, useful in studying the phylogenetic classification of animals. Bright orange blobs, the worms sell for $10 a dozen. A second haul produced more squid, sea squirts, white shrimp, snapping shrimp (sometimes called pistol shrimp because they make an explosive noise), a garfish and several spiny boxfish. The boxfish, a member of the puffer family, sell for $5 apiece, but even more valuable are their parasitic copepod, Tucca impressus, which cost $8.50 each.

Rudloe, Leon and Stew took the specimens back to Panacea, packed them and ate lunch. In the afternoon Rudloe worked in the lab while Leon took the tunnel boat up Ochlockonee River. Twenty-four feet long, the tunnel boat is constructed like a big rowboat except that it has a built-up, walled section near the bow. This is the tunnel, and an outboard motor is mounted high on it with the propeller just barely in the water. The unusual design allows the boat to move swiftly in very shallow water, and since there is no motor at the stern, it is easy to use a net or a bucket dredge without getting it tangled in the prop. Rudloe uses the tunnel boat to collect scallops, small blue crabs and fish such as mullet.

Leon headed up a creek bordered by tall growths of saw grass. There were ducks and herons and marsh hens almost everywhere. The only mullet around were in a deep hole in a boil off to the side of the creek. In contrast to the creek, stained brown from the tannic acid of the cypress trees, the water in the boil, bubbling up from a spring perhaps 200 feet down, was clear. When Leon catches mullet he often fries up a few on a sandbar. "Makes your tongue slap your brain!" he exclaimed, smacking his lips. Off to the west, he went on, was a big piece of water and swamp called Tate's Hell. "The boogerist lookin' water I ever did see," he said. "You get lost in there, you wander around for months." Leon would never leave Panacea. "This is the only place where a man can come and start livin' again," he said.

Rudloe's plans for Gulf Specimen are grandiose but realistic. At present the growth of the company is limited by the lack of additional holding tanks and staff. In order to expand, he is seeking to raise $150,000 in working capital and, given this, he sees no reason why Gulf Specimen should not gross $500,000 a year. "Until I came along," he says, "most sales of marine specimens were preserved. Such specimens are useful up to a point, but they simply cannot compare with living specimens. A harsh-smelling, rubbery octopus, for instance, is no match for the exotic living creature from the sea. Five or six years ago the typical head of a high school or college biology program relied on preserved animals. When I told him about living animals, he could appropriate maybe $10. Now you find the high school setting aside $500 or $600 a year for living specimens. The whole concept of education and research has changed. There are entire medical, scientific and educational research programs throughout the United States built entirely on animals from Gulf Specimen, and if we went out of business tomorrow there would be a hell of a lot of unhappy professors."

Besides orthodox expansion, Rudloe is tempted to enter the live-bait business in wholesale, perhaps revolutionary, fashion. Guides in south Florida have despaired of keeping mullet alive, and mullet are a prime bait for tarpon. Yet Rudloe has kept mullet alive and thriving for months on end in self-contained life-support systems, a fancy way of saying aquariums. With enough wooden vats, he can keep hundreds of thousands of fiddler crabs alive for sale at an economic price, and then there is the beautiful but commercially valueless mantis shrimp, Squilla empusa, commonly referred to as sea lice, that can be collected by the ton and are, according to Rudloe's own field tests, superb bait for groupers, snappers and rock bass. There are the sea worms, Arencola marina, a favorite food of many fish in the Gulf. In the state of Maine diggers have to find bloodworms and sandworms to sell, which are shipped all over the country. The Maine worm business totals more than $1 million a year, but no one has been able to culture them. However, Rudloe has artificially raised lugworms, Arencola cristata, in aquariums, and they are fatter and meatier than the Maine worms. "I have a million things I want to do," Rudloe says, "but raising and selling sea worms for bait is one of the easiest."

For all of Rudloe's plans, there are threats. Several developers have become very active in the area. For instance, there is a real-estate company in Panacea whose billboard proclaims, "MCMILLAN REALTY. Selling Florida's Last Frontier." "Florida's Last Frontier is not something to be conquered," Rudloe says. "It's something special and it should be saved, not only for science and medical research but for people who appreciate a natural ecosystem at work. Hell, anybody can go almost anywhere else to look at ruined coastal areas with stinking factories, spoil banks and torn-up countryside."

Rudloe has a couple of allies in the fight, such as Oscar Crays, a militant marina owner, and Harry Smith, the former state budget director, but he also has a good number of enemies who see economic progress in oil refineries and dredging and filling. Leon says, "Jack keeps things stirred up around here and all these big landowners hate him. A lot of people think that someday Jack is gonna get stomped on good and hard." But Jack Rudloe observes defiantly, "It's possible that I'll get stomped someday but it would be worth it to preserve this area."