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Mission to preserve gulf marine life forged in oil spill

PANACEA — The boat glides to a halt on a blissful morning and the anchor drops and the father inspects his son. His mask, his fins, the heavy tanks strapped to his back.

"Feel all right?" Jack Rudloe asks.

"I feel all right," Cypress Rudloe replies. "Let's do it."

With that, a year after the Deepwater Horizon explosion set off the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, the young man falls backward into an underwater world a few blue miles from their little fall-down fishing town, into the Gulf of Mexico, into an environment of change and uncertainty.

Behold, the passing of the torch from father to son.

Cypress, 27, descending now to the sandy bottom, did not predict this, taking over the family business.

His great-grandfather was a gangster, his grandfather an artist. His father moved from Brooklyn to Florida and forged a prince-of-tides living for 45 years, studying the abundant gulf, collecting specimens, giving lectures and writing books. He built the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, which is open to the public and draws tourists and school kids to Panacea.

Each son had staked his own ground. Cypress would be no different.

The boy who grew up in a stilt house on Dickerson Bay saw himself graduating from college and running a bar or restaurant someplace not called Panacea. He would wear shoes and a suit not made of rubber.

But sometimes that generational pull is strong, so boys follow their fathers to the coal mines or the factories or the sea.

When Cypress first took the wheel of a boat, at 5 or 6, his mother, Anne, recalls, something happened.

"Something changed in the kid," she says. "He took on the air of an old fisherman or something."

When he was 13, a neighbor called to report young Cypress, mad at his parents, was pitching eggs at one of the signs that said Gulf Specimen Marine Lab.

"It was as though he'd been preordained," Anne says.

Here he comes now to the surface with a basket full of creatures for the lab: sea urchins and sea stars and soft corals and sea biscuits and . . .

"What is that?" the son asks.

"Looks like donkey droppings," the father says.

They laugh.

That's been rare. The past year was rough.

When oil began lurching its way east, the son went to work to save what the father had built. They launched Operation Noah's Ark, a massive effort to make the lab self-sufficient and not reliant on water sucked from the gulf. The idea was to save 300 marine species in tanks in the event the oil slick completely killed coastal life. Someday years from now, they predicted, someone would walk down to the water's edge of this aptly named town and reseed the gulf.

They spent close to $212,000. The retrofit worked.

But the oil never came, and now the lab is strapped with debt. Their claims for repayment have not been approved. They keep trying.

Floridians have helped. Jimmy Buffett made a hefty donation and fundraisers have offset a little of the cost. They're still behind.

"I sometimes wonder whether I'm doing Cypress a favor by doing this," Jack says.

Beyond the money, Jack worries about the unconfirmed effects of the oil spill. He has witnessed unexplained fish kills, seen blue crabs unnaturally on the beach and ghost crabs in packs. Mole crabs are sparse to the west. Coquina clams are acting strange. A few months ago, they found a diseased Kemp's Ridley turtle, its skin sloughing off.

Who knows if these events are connected to the spill, but the uncertainty has the old man on edge.

Jack is 68 now. He ran himself ragged the past year. He hurt his back recently trying on a suit to prepare for a lecture.

He knows the time to step aside is near.

Cypress has ideas and energy. He's come up with a graphic concept for a mobile aquarium, so they can take tanks to schools across the Panhandle. He gets excited to see little kids pick up sea stars. He's engaged to a girl with tattoos the color of coral.

And he has learned things from the oil spill, which cemented him even more to his father's business.

"Hard work and dedication in the face of uncertainty is the best way to go," he says. "I'm not totally happy with the way things worked out, but I still get to go live an interesting life. And I had a chance of losing that.

"Growing up here, you don't realize that."

He has learned, a year after the oil spill, that each animal has a place in the scheme of things. Each person, too.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Mission to preserve gulf marine life forged in oil spill 04/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 9:06am]

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