TRAV Texas State Aquarium new

April 25, 2018

CORPUS CHRISTI — The choices are all good ones: Head to the Gulf of Mexico or go on a Caribbean Journey. Then you hear that the next dolphin show at the Texas State Aquarium starts in 15 minutes so you make a beeline for Dolphin Bay to catch the action. On the way, we watch kids reach into a touch lagoon to gently pet the backs of stingrays that glide around like they’re looking for attention.

From a perfect vantage point at Dolphin Bay, you can watch talented trainers lead two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins through a series of acrobatics, tossing balls, waving at the crowd, chattering and following every command, entertaining young and old. From the stadium seats, members of the audience can watch boats head in and out of the Corpus Christi Bay and listen to the squeals of the kids on the front row getting soaked by the strong flip of a dolphin tail. While the trainers coax the dolphins to throw a splash (or two or three) on a big swath of the audience, they also teach a lesson in preserving the environment — putting trash in its proper place so marine mammals in the Texas Gulf and beyond face fewer threats. The aquarium also practices what it preaches, occasionally organizing beach cleanup events and recently being recognized as a Ocean-Friendly Restaurant (OFR) by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation for its commitment to reducing single-use plastics. The Pepsi Shoreline Grill uses sustainable and environmentally friendly practices to reduce plastic waste and is the first Texas restaurant to be named the platinum level OFR.

After the dolphin show, it’s back to the decision — go to the Gulf of Mexico section OR the newer Caribbean Journey that involved a massive expansion of the aquarium that opened last May (with a mental note to make a stop by that fabulous gift shop before the day is over). We started with the familiar, marveling at the list of sharks on the wall that live in the Gulf, watching pulsating jellyfish on a blue lighted background and gawking at the size of Otis, the giant Pacific octapus next to the aquarium glass as others craned their necks to get a closer look at its underside. One of the messages here is about saving sharks that are important to a healthy ocean ecosystem, not fearing them as man-eaters. While families can fit inside the jaws of a life-size great white shark replica or even touch some small sharks in a touch pool.

The Islands of Steel exhibit, shows a decommissioned oil drilling platform and the kind of underwater habitat that can form around it. Two sand tiger sharks, fish and stingrays swim in and out of the giant steel platform. Red snapper and yellowtail snapper swim by at eye level while a loggerhead sea turtle that lost most her flippers when she got entangled in a fishing line sticks closer to the surface of the 125,000-gallon exhibit.

When we move along to the Caribbean Journey, we’re can’t help but linger with the crowd admiring the orange and pink Caribbean flamingos just inside the jungle environment that is patterend after the Sian Ka’an biosphere preserve in the Eastern Yucatan Peninsula. While the rest of the flamingos go about their grooming and socializing with one another, one full-grown flamingo is as fascinated with us — especially a little blond boy next to the exhibit railing — as we are with him/her. The extrovert acts like a two-legged welcome committee, determined to keep our attention. And it did. We snapped photos of the little ones and big ones, but kept coming back to the nosy one checking us out. Eventually we had to move along to the macaw, shorebirds and a green iguana perched on a thatched room among the tropical plants.

The H-E-B Caribbean Sea exhibit provides a view of a Spanish galleon shipwreck through a 68-foot acrylic window, the longest in North America, where you can watch reef sharks, barracudas swim by. While you’re focusing the camera on the belly of reef shark just overhead, another swims right past your shoulder. I’m mentally embracing the sharks, as long as they’re behind the acrylic, and enjoying the variety of ways the Texas State Aquarium has found to show the marine life, coral reefs, birds and reptiles.

The morning before our aquarium visit, we joined staffers from the aquarium and its Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Center as they released a dozen rehabilitated green sea turtles back into their natural habitat at the Padre Island National Seashore. At Malaquite Beach, a crowd surrounded the path on the sand where sea turtles measuring 12-18 inches were taken out of tubs in the back of a van and carried one at a time into the surf, after being nursed back to health. They were among more than 1,000 sea turtles that became cold-stunned by a sudden drop in the coastal temperatures, left unable to swim during cold spells in December and January. The turtles had been cared for in tanks in a large metal building in an industrial area of Corpus Christi and most had already been released in groups before our Friday, March 9, trip to the beach.

Aquarium CEO and President Tom Schmid was among the people wearing gloves and carrying turtles to the edge of the surf, handing them of to staffers who walked them out into the waves. Onlookers captured it all on phones and cameras, cheering as the last turtle was released.

“This was in important event for South Texas and the Coastal Bend,” he said that Friday morning. “That’s what an aquarium can do — not just display animals, but actually save animals,” Schmid said.

He gave credit to his staff and a lot of partners who helped care for more than 1,000 turtles and released them back into the wild. Schmid said he hopes his aquarium is able to expand again to add a facility on-site to care for turtles.

Turtle nesting season begins this month for the Kemp Ridley turtles at the Padre Island National Seashore. Volunteers and staffers from the National Park Service watch for nesting sites and remove the eggs to an incubation center to keep them away from predators. And the NPS announces dates on its website, nps.gov/pais/index.htm, when turtles smaller than the palm of your hand are released near the edge of the water at Malaquite Beach. Sometimes hundreds gather to watch.

Before we left the aquarium the day after watching the turtle release, we made a stop in that gift shop to buy some books for the grandchildren. And one hat embroidered with a green turtle embroidered on it.

tbertling@express-news.net | Twitter: @TerryBertling