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Love for wild spans career

An educator is moving on after three decades of helping students understand and respect the environment.

[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Pat Purcell talks with Lecanto High School marine biology students about swimming with manatees in Kings Bay.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Growing up in California, Pat Purcell explored the coastal caves around Pismo Beach but he never found the gold doubloons pirates were rumored to have stashed there.

Instead, he discovered an even greater treasure -- sea lions.

Years later, as a student at the University of South Florida, Purcell remained fascinated by animals. He read about great whales and polar bears and dreamed of someday seeing them in the wild.

Instead of embarking on a lifelong search for such wondrous, faraway creatures, he settled in Florida and began a career trying to impart his love of animals and the environment on future generations.

Now, as he prepares to retire from his 32-year position directing the Marine Science Station at the end of this month, Purcell is ready to see his first great whale.

"I want to get out and see the stuff I've read about and taught about," he said.

The most senior administrator in the Citrus schools, Purcell plans to head for Alaska this spring with his wife, Patricia, to see firsthand very different flora and fauna than have been at his fingertips all these years.

Purcell, 59, plans to see Alaska, fish for salmon, glide in a kayak beside pods of orca and watch bears in the wild, but he expects to return to Citrus County to live.

Purcell is the personification of environmental education for Citrus students. Virtually every Citrus student over the last two generations has at some point accompanied Purcell on a boat trip off the coast.

With him, they have seen manatees and ospreys and learned the critical importance of protecting the creatures of Florida's West Coast and the estuary itself.

He captained the boats into Kings Bay and other waters as students scooped sea life in small nets. As they saw and touched the creatures calling the estuary home, he explained each species and how they interconnect.

Thousands of students had their first experience snorkeling with manatees under Purcell's guidance. For many students, his was the first boat ride of their young lives.

Students from Dunnellon once came on one of the trips and were dumbfounded when they first saw the Gulf of Mexico. He recalled that before that, they had no idea where the Rainbow River emptied.

"I'm going to miss going out on the boats," Purcell mused last week. "On those days when the conditions were perfect, it was warm and the sun was rising or setting and we were skimming out over the water . . . Those are the days that I live for.

"I'm going to miss dealing with that one kid who has an interest way beyond anyone else. They hang on your every word," he said. "A lot of those kids are the ones that go out and get active in helping the environment.

"And I hope that everyone else got something out of it, too."

Purcell was one of those students who became fascinated with the natural world. His father, a college educator, shared his wanderlust. For Purcell, that meant living in 24 of the 50 states by the time he was in his mid teens.

But Florida is what he calls home. While Purcell is excited about the travel that retirement offers, he also plans to continue working in environmental education programs in Citrus County.

He has plans to develop adult environmental education programs using a glass-bottom boat donated to the Marine Science Station -- programs Purcell hopes will generate some money for the station's future. He also is working on a project to transform a cabin on the Chassahowitzka River into a base station for families who will pay to come learn about Florida's ecosystems.

Purcell said he feels that today's youngsters are getting a taste of environmental education but they often learn the lesson, then move elsewhere. In their place come an endless parade of adults, often retirees, who know very little about what helps and what hurts Florida's delicate environmental balance.

Purcell's perspective on growth is unique.

When he first started working as the director at the Marine Science Station, the facility had been open for only a year. Fort Island Gulf Trail was little more than a dirt road that ended at the station. The Salt River bridge was under construction. There was no Fort Island Gulf Beach and there were no homes beyond Crystal Shores.

"It was wild," he said. "We had bears come up in the camp, deer, panthers and bobcats. I can't tell you how long it's been seen we've seen bobcat tracks."

The neighborhood isn't the only thing that has changed.

While the estuary remains much the way it was when Purcell arrived, "You can't say the same thing about the river and the springs," Purcell said. "We'd take the high school students out and the water was crystal clear with a white sand bottom all the way out to near Shell Island. You could read the headlines on a paper resting on the bottom."

"Now you can't see 10 feet in front of you."

Another big change has been with the manatees.

Decades ago, when Purcell worked with some of the original manatee researchers in the area, there were just a few dozen seen in exhaustive surveys of area waters. Now nearly 10 times that number come here each winter, escaping more developed and more boat-clogged waterways to the south and breeding and giving birth in areas featuring warm water springs and no-entry sanctuaries.

With the manatee herds have come the tourists.

On a trip with students from Citrus High School last week, Purcell counted six fully loaded dive boats cruising out of Three Sisters Spring as he was pulling in. Such situations make Purcell shake his head and wonder how to draw the line needed to protect the creatures while still allowing close contact with them to inspire environmental interest in young people.

The popularity of the animals has contributed to the burgeoning tour business and Purcell is not surprised. During his time at the Marine Science Station, he has seen the celebrities brought here by the lumbering sea cows. He worked with Jacques Cousteau and his sons when they filmed the animals.

He met Marlin Perkins, the host of the animal show Wild Kingdom, in a local laundry sorting his socks and underwear when Perkins was filming in the area.

At the same time he was teaching his first generation about the value of wild creatures and wild habitats, families all over America were seeing Crystal River's unique marine mammals in footage in their living rooms for the first time.

"It was the beginning of environmental education," Purcell said. "But people don't have the same level of environmental awareness as they had then. It was the '60s and '70s. There was a lot of caring. Everyone saw the value of environment back then."

Then the realities of the '80s and '90s set in.

"People got interested in lots of money and the potential of making lots of money by destroying nature overnight," he said.

Purcell isn't one of those no-growth environmentalists and he has not tried over the years to grow a generation of such people. But he is a strong advocate for growth in ways that are environmentally friendly. Building so many homes around the headwaters of the Crystal River with septic tanks doesn't match with that philosophy.

"I am personally pessimistic about the future based on the past," he said. "I do this so they (the children) will be able to make decisions in the future."

Purcell hopes that he has made a difference.

"(Environmental) values were impressed upon me at a very early age," he said. "I would like to think that I have left behind children that have an environmental ethic."

-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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