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."