Pat’s Wildways: Gulf Specimen Marine Lab

By Pat Foster-Turley

I’m always on the lookout for new column ideas, and over my many years in north Florida, fresh new local stories are getting more difficult to create. So, I’m having to dig deeper. Bucko and I were planning another three-night road trip out to the Big Bend area of Florida, six months since our last excursion there and my columns about it. We were eager to see the status of Steinhatchee and the surrounding areas that we had visited right before the devastating Hurricane Idalia swept through. This time, I contacted the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab ahead of time to ask the founder and president, Jack Rudloe if anything special was going on the day we planned to visit again. And wow, was there!

The Picklearium of preserved marine specimens glows in multi-colored lights.

First off, Jack mentioned their new display, the Picklearium, where deep sea creatures and other marine life are displayed in their jars of pickling solution. OK. But also, as my good fortune would have it, that day, there would also be another guest there: distinguished National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore. Great! I’ve long admired his Photo Ark photos in his ambitious effort to photograph all the species of animals in captivity in the world. And seeing him in action! I contacted Joel ahead of time, and he agreed that it was OK if I “hung around” when he was photographing. Wow!

Sea cucumbers are an important part of the marine food chain.

Bucko and I got to the aquarium in Panacea ahead of Joel, and before we could connect with Jack Rudloe we entertained ourselves at the invertebrate touch tanks. I happily watched as one spider crab pursued another and soon were locked in their mating effort. I called over a staff aquarist and we enjoyed the show and both took photos. With someone now to help me, I asked her about sea cucumbers, these unattractive, often overlooked, but important sea creatures. She obligingly found a few from the tanks and held them so I could take photos to send to my Parisian sea cucumber expert friend Chantal Conand to show her I was thinking about her. Further along I found a seahorse to photograph and sent this pic to my Belizean friends who have sea horses in the mangroves behind their home. Making connections like these is my “superpower.”

Bucko and I were browsing the Picklearium display when Joel Sartore arrived. Admittedly, the specimens in their multi-colored lit-up jars were intriguing and eye-catching, but really, for me, the National Geographic photographer was the big show.

Some species of jellyfish are edible — if you dare.

When Joel arrived he was the center of activity at the aquarium. I introduced myself and lingered in the background while Joel spent lots of time helping Jack and his staff modify their website. Joel has been there many times before — in fact, over the years, he has photographed more than 280 critters at this aquarium. There was already a setup in place in their lab, with light baffles and a special narrow tank to hold the photo subjects. Joel and Jack are obviously close friends. Other newer members of Jack’s staff were as enamored as I was. At one point, Jack brought out a dish of pickled jellyfish for us to taste — it was a species that Joel was planning to photograph that day — a different specimen of course. Only U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, Sandra Sneckenberger, who was assisting Joel, dared to try it.

Eventually, the work of photographing specimens got underway, but there was a glitch. The octopus that was to be photographed escaped from its bucket and the aquarists had to retrieve it, wearing gloves to prevent getting its painful bite. When I worked as an aquarist myself at Miami Seaquarium many years ago I have memories of chasing escaped octopuses down the aquarium hallway, so I expected a long delay. But soon enough two AmeriCorps aquarists came proudly into the photo room, with their confined-again octopus.

Aquarists Brittany Metz and Kristen Love deliver an octopus to Joel.
Sandra Sneckenberger assists Joel Sartore in his photo shoot.

That was about the last I saw of Joel Sartore, as he and his camera disappeared under a dark hood controlling the light to his subject. It was time to take my leave, but not before chatting with Joel about his possible upcoming visit to the Ark in Hilliard, maybe the next day, to photograph an eastern white-tailed deer. I am a volunteer and friend of the Ark (now called Otter Space) and would have liked to be there, but I was still in the Big Bend Area, with a scheduled appointment the next day to see the North Florida Wildlife Center outside Tallahassee.

North Florida is full of amazing things, and the deeper I dig, the more I find out. And you will, too. Stay tuned. And if you want to know more now about the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Joel Sartore’s work, check out these websites.

Pat Foster-Turley Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island.  She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Noble Member
[email protected](@rocknrobin12gmail-com)
1 month ago

Another awesome article. Thanks to you pat I downloaded the Merlin bird I’d app. I enjoy sitting in my deck listening and capturing all the birds we have while watching many come down to feast in our feeder and bath!

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago

Nice article, as usual, Pat. Also there is a great Welcome to Florida podcast by Amelia Island’s own Chadd Scott (and Craig Pittman) featuring the founder of the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab (what a character!). It is episode #162 July 25, 2023. And check out all the other interesting podcasts about the weird and wonderful people, history, and mysteries of Florida on Welcome to Florida.