By Pat Foster-Turley
On our Big Bend road trip a couple of weeks ago Bucko and I followed signs in Panacea to a place that sounded vaguely familiar to me, the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium. I remembered purchasing specimens for exhibit from this place 50 years ago, while working as an aquarist at Miami Seaquarium. This place still exists? Wouldn’t it be fun to see it? Sure.
This aquarium is a real gem for sure. When we arrived, we paid a small admission price to a kind woman manning the entrance desk and received a map of the place along with some instructions for a do-it-ourselves-hands-on tour. “You can gently handle anything in the ‘touch tanks’ but don’t stick your hands in the others and you will see why.” And, “Kids love to make the triggerfish blow bubbles, give it a try,” and various other intriguing advice, and then we were off on our own to explore, the only visitors there at the time.
At the touch tanks, Bucko gently lifted a few crabs from the substrate so I could add photographs of them to my collection for future columns. Spider crabs, calico crabs, hermit crabs, I photographed them all in Bucko’s hands. And in one tank, there it was, my old nemesis from my old Seaquarium days, a Cassiopea xamachana, known more popularly as the upside-down jellyfish. For two years at Seaquarium one of my tasks was to feed these jellyfish to the young leatherback sea turtles in my care. The Seaquarium boat crew collected many pounds of these jellyfish from the mangroves behind the Flipper Stadium and put them in a large tank, where I scooped out copious amounts to feed these turtles. You can just imagine how many jellyfish, composed mostly of water, it takes to feed leatherbacks, with this the only item they can digest. These jellyfish have a mild sting, but when you handle many pounds of them every day, you develop a sensitivity to them, and the stings get worse. Although I was intrigued by the leatherback turtles, I hated their food source with a passion. At the Gulf Specimen Aquarium of course I had to take photos of these jellyfish, but no, I had no desire to touch them ever again.
Shortly after I arrived at Miami Seaquarium fresh out of college in 1973 I met “Mr. Fun” aka Patrick Turley, who later earned the moniker “Bucko” which has stuck with him ever since. He was a marine mammal trainer, working with sea lions, dolphins, and the killer whales there at the time, Hugo and Lolita. Lolita just passed away a few weeks ago, a sad long life in a small tank. But at the time I was young and this was all so exciting. Pat Turley was out to woo me, with opportunities to pet the whales and dolphins and to feed the sea lions. Not to be outdone I tried to woo him too with the resources I had at hand in my job as aquarist.
One fateful day I invited Pat to feed the fish with me. I was in charge of twenty-six 500-gallon saltwater tanks with all manner of critters. I took him behind the tanks one by one and gave him the appropriate food to feed them all. And one by one, he had problems. The moray eels swam up to the top of the water to nab the fish, the sea turtle hatchlings nibbled on his fingers, and, the filefish nearly bit his finger off. He survived these trials and to reward him I knew what to do. “There are some cold beers in the fridge over there. Help yourself.” I didn’t bother to tell him that lately, I was getting small shocks from the fridge, so what? Well, he was standing in a puddle of saltwater wearing flip-flops. Bad mistake. One touch of the refrigerator door and a massive electrical shock threw him to the concrete floor, and knocked him unconscious for a few scary moments. I nearly killed him.
So, now at the Gulf Specimen Aquarium when we met the friendly triggerfish, we were reminded of our past. Bucko gingerly presented his hand to the triggerfish, and sure enough it came up to him and started blowing its famous bubbles. No Bucko did not let it bite him this time, and there was no short-circuited refrigerator to harm him, but the memories came flooding back for both of us.
You may not have the same memories that we had at the Gulf Specimen Aquarium but it offers a fun interactive learning experience about many local marine species from crabs to sharks to sea turtles. The aquarium survived Hurricane Idalia unscathed and is open for visitors. Next time you are in the Big Bend area, check it out.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]