PANACEA, Fla. (WTXL) - For more than 50 years, the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Aquarium has been a Wakulla County staple, helping animals, hosting research and educating thousands of visitors a year.
Jack and Ann Rudloe founded the lab. Although Ann passed away in 2012, Jack continues their work in Panacea. However, as Hurricane Irma approached the Big Bend last weekend, Rudloe began to fear the worst.
"They were looking at a catastrophic hurricane which was essentially going to potentially blow Panacea off the map and Gulf Specimen with it," said Rudloe.
Instead of weathering the monster storm, Rudloe and his employees packed up tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, hoping to save as much as possible.
The tricky part: saving the animals. State regulations prohibit the release of lab animals back into the wild because they could introduce a foreign bacteria or disease into the natural ecosystem. So, even though the lab's specimens are from the ocean and the lab sits less than a mile away from the sea, most of the animals had to stay put.
"Flint River Aquarium came down and got our sharks, which, if we lost power, we would lose the sharks," said Rudloe. "So two of the sharks are in Atlanta now. Our sea turtle was picked up by the FWC."
Just when it seemed like everything could be lost, Rudloe saw something he couldn't believe.
"What rolls up into my front yard is Archelon himself!" said Rudloe. Rudloe is writing a fiction novel and one of his characters is studying the extinct sea turtles. Rudloe explained why seeing the creature on his U-Haul was so encouraging: "Turtles are always good signs."
In the end, it's a good sign, a shift in Irma's path and a lot of support that keeps marine lab standing, helping Rudloe continue his lifelong mission.
"When you see how many kids come through and the excitement when they come off those school buses, then it's a whole new charge," said Rudloe.
Employees and volunteers worked all day Tuesday to unpack the equipment and get the marine lab back to normal. They hope to reopen by the end of the week.
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