Land & Conservation

From Father to Son, a Legacy of Saving Sea Life

Gulf Coast conservation hero Jack Rudloe prepares to pass the stewardship of a beloved Florida research institution to his son

Jack Rudloe collecting at low tide.

When I first spoke to Jack Rudloe he was wading through seawater looking for bugula. Though only noon, the seventy-five-year-old marine collector and conservationist had already harvested by hand three pounds of the seaweed-like bryozoa from the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s a slow-going process,” Rudloe said. Catching him in the surf felt fitting: the ocean has been his life’s pursuit.

Fifty-four years ago, Rudloe founded Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories in Panacea, Florida, a small beach community south of Tallahassee. The lab collects and sells marine specimens to researchers and educators. With university clients in the dozens, it is one of the country’s preeminent marine organism suppliers. Along with the lab, Rudloe has also cemented himself as a formidable marine activist, credited with saving 35,000 acres of wetland on the Florida panhandle from development as well as helping to mainstream sea turtle conservation, among other causes. He has been honored by the likes of National Geographic. He has even had a jellyfish named after him.

Since the beginning, Gulf Specimens has been a family enterprise. Rudloe founded it alongside his late wife, Anne, an accomplished marine biologist and nature writer who passed in 2012 from cancer. Much of the operation’s success he credits to her, but the lab would not have even existed without John Steinbeck. In the winter of 1962, two years before starting Gulf Specimens, a nineteen-year-old Rudloe began a correspondence with the late writer. Though Rudloe didn’t expect a reply, Steinbeck, then at the peak of his fame, was taken in by Rudloe’s letterhead of a hammerhead and a moray eel. (Steinbeck: “The name Panacea is charming.”) The two kept writing until Steinbeck’s death in 1968. They even met a few times in person. All of the letters can be found on the lab’s website.

Steinbeck was a marine collector himself. Rudloe first discovered him through his book on a biological expedition to Mexico, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. As a young man, Rudloe, who was booted from Florida State University, had carried a chip on his shoulder over not having the traditional credentials needed to start a marine lab. Steinbeck, bemoaning the “dull people” of academia, urged him to go for it. “If it wasn’t for Steinbeck, there wouldn’t be a Gulf Specimen,” Rudloe tells me.

Now in “semi-retirement,” Rudloe is in the process of passing the operation onto his thirty-five-year-old son, Cypress. Rudloe says he wants more time to focus on writing: he has written several books of nonfiction and fiction, all of them sea-centered; his latest is about a seastorm which careens a boat back into prehistoric time. But if Rudloe has any angsts about passing on his life’s work, he doesn’t show it. His son, he says, is more than ready for the job.

Jack and Cypress Rudloe.

Cypress grew up at the lab, diving for urchins and looking after sea turtles. He has also worked at marinas and shucked oysters. For the past decade, most of his labor at the lab has been in the fundraising, organizing, and educational departments. He was instrumental in raising money for the Sea Mobile, a rolling exhibit. He convinced Jimmy Buffett to donate. “He’s got the vision,” Rudloe says.

While specimen-collecting is still a major money-maker for the lab, in recent years it has morphed into a kind of aquarium, hosting around 12,000 schoolchildren each year and running educational outings off their “living dock.” A rehabilitation facility for injured sea turtles also gets plenty of action. During releases, a town-wide event, hundreds gather on the beach to see Rudloe, dressed in his signature sky-blue suit, lead the healthy turtle out to sea. With nearly two dozen staff and volunteers and thousands of sea specimens, from urchins to eels, the lab can feel like “kind of a mad house,” Rudloe says. Somehow, though, they stay afloat.

For Cypress, taking over the family business is a somewhat daunting prospect. He knows he has large flippers to fill. “There’s a legacy here, by all means,” he says. “There’s no way I’ll be able to accomplish what my dad did. But I can be different.”

His biggest course of action is to build on and expand the lab’s educational endeavors: the summer camp, the field trips, the nature outings. Transferring the conservation mindset to the next generation is his biggest priority. “I always tell my employees, you don’t work for me, you work for the five-year-olds in the touch tanks, holding the animals, having that good time,” he says.

On whether Cypress’ own son, now two years old, will one day work at the lab, he’s not assuming anything. “Who knows. It’s way too early to tell,” he says. “Anyways that’s up to him. To each their own path.”