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Turtle Dancers

Destination: Corpus Christi

Travel time from:
Austin – 3.5 hours
Dallas – 6 hours
El Paso – 9.5 hours
San Antonio – 2 hours
Houston – 3.5 hours
Lubbock – 8 hours

Wildlife and culture abound in Corpus Christi, where sea turtle hatchlings can steal the show.

By John H. Ostdick

When Syracuse-born Donna Shaver arrived at Padre Island National Seashore in 1980, she fell in love with her first taste of Texas coastal life and the notion of working to save an endangered species.

“I had never seen the ocean or a live sea turtle before,” she says, reflecting on her first day as a volunteer with the National Park Service during Cornell University undergraduate work. “My boss cautioned it was unusual, but that first day we collected two live-stranded turtles and took them up to a rehabilitation facility.”

Shaver was hooked.

harbor

The illuminated Harbor Bridge connects downtown Corpus Christi to North Beach's attractions.

South Texas’ largest coastal city, at the mouth of the Nueces River on Corpus Christi Bay’s west end, soon became her forever home. After working summers through 1984, Shaver accepted a permanent NPS role in 1985. By 1986, she was leading its sea turtle conservation efforts.

After years of shoestring budgets, research and grant writing, the tide is beginning to turn, says Shaver, chief of the agency’s Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery and Texas coordinator of the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.

“We haven’t won the Super Bowl yet,” she cautions.

Early morning darkness clings to the park service’s remote national seashore offices as Shaver shifts gingerly in a chair. A flare-up of a balky back — “too many years of picking up large turtles,” she jokes — doesn’t deter her from sharing insights from a 38-year connection to Texas coastal turtles and this town.

Turtle images are everywhere: dangling, tiny gold turtle earrings that complement Shaver’s green NPS uniform, decorative turtles climbing up a lamp, turtle magnets on a mini-fridge, wood-carved turtles on her desk, framed news stories on the turtles and the program.

The only NPS division of its kind is celebrating the turtle initiative’s 40-year anniversary this summer. In the late 1970s, Padre Island National Seashore joined a 20-agency U.S.-Mexico effort to restore Kemp’s ridley turtles, which once nested from Mustang Island to Veracruz, Mexico. Since its inception, the program has expanded to include protection and conservation measures for four other threatened or endangered sea turtle species (green, loggerhead, hawksbill and leatherback).

The number of Kemp’s ridley nests reached a low point of only 702 worldwide in 1985, a dramatic drop from an estimated 121,500 nests recorded in Tamaulipas, Mexico, in 1947. Padre Island National Seashore listed a record 219 Kemp’s ridley nests in 2017, and a total 353 statewide.

During the April to mid-July nesting season, staff and volunteers scour the seashore for often hard-to-find nests. The turtles, which spend 99 percent of their lives in the water, traveling thousands of miles, tend to nest in synchronous emergences called arribadas (Spanish for “mass arrival”), often on windy days or during incoming fronts that obliterate tracks quickly.

They dig a nest cavity in the sand, and then fall into a trancelike state, virtually motionless for about 15 minutes as they lay their eggs. After the eggs drop, the turtles move their rear flippers to put sand back into the hole. They spread the sand with their front flippers, and vigorously rock back and forth — boom, boom, boom.

“If you are standing there, you can feel the vibrations in the sand through your feet and up your legs,” Shaver says. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, I saw a turtle dancing!’ That’s a good way to describe it.”

PINS

Donna Shaver at Malaquite Beach, Padre Island National Seashore

Mother then returns to the water and swims away. She will not return to the eggs. The seashore program improves their 1-in-400 odds of survival by digging them up and taking them to a hatchling station, where they are kept in sand, in boxes similar to beer coolers, until they hatch.

“June is a great month for visitors because typically that’s when our free public hatchling releases start,” says Shaver, who has participated in almost 750 such events. “We have about 25 releases of Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings from June through mid-August, depending on when the eggs are laid.”

The agency’s website lists when the eggs go into the incubation facility and the projected release schedule. As many as 2,000 people have attended a single release.

“At every release, adult women and men with tears in their eyes will tell me that this is something they wanted to see for years,” Shaver says.

When she’s not working, Shaver and her husband like to walk their dog on the jetties at Packery Channel. “It’s our natural aquarium; you can see green turtles swimming all around.”

Sometimes on their way into town they will slip into the quirky, cozy Dragonfly restaurant, where chef Dominique Cordier, a cruise ship chef for many years, brings his own French flair to the Padre Island palate.

After leaving Shaver’s office, I drive farther down the island to Malaquite Pavilion and join a few isolated couples for a mid-morning beach walk. The area’s expansive state and national parks and refuges offer bountiful opportunities for boating, swimming, fishing, camping and bird-watching.

A cotillion of royal terns is posted at the surf’s edge, picking at what the receding waves leave behind. The sand beneath my toes and the sea breeze across my face are invigorating.

All this works up an appetite, and Taqueria Jalisco is just the spot to deal with that.

botanical gardens

South Texas Botanical Gardens

Jalisco is a Corpus staple. Most mornings, cars pack its various-location drive-up windows for its breakfast tacos. I beat the lunch swarm to Taqueria Jalisco No. 1 on South Port Avenue. The tables are mostly full, the staff’s busy, and the room’s buzzing with Spanish conversations and laughter.

Another Shaver favorite, the Texas State Aquarium, provides a fascinating place to walk off some calories.

The aquarium, renovated in 2017, has 320 species of exotic fish, mammals and birds on its 7.3-acre North Beach site. It also operates a separate Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Center to rehabilitate stranded and injured local animals and birds.

Moments into my visit, I become engrossed with an employee feeding Zena, a 2-year-old Linnaeus two-toed sloth hanging upside down from a tree in the Caribbean Journey section.

There’s no hurrying Zena. She spends 20 minutes on a nut before reaching for her favorite diet staple, uber-green romaine lettuce (Fun fact: Two-toed sloths are so slow that algae can grow in their fur, giving them a greenish, camouflaging tint in the wild).

I move on to Underwater World, where great sand sharks cruise a 400,000-gallon habitat among other fetching fish.

A little boy and his mom move past smaller observation tanks. The boy stops at every portal, points and says, “Shark!” His mother patiently corrects him with the proper fish name at each stop. Undeterred, the boy moves on to the next display. “Shark!”

Next door, a big Blue Ghost beckons.

More than 7 million visitors have walked 1943-commissioned USS Lexington’s decks since she opened as a naval aviation museum in 1992. The world’s oldest aircraft carrier is rife with historical detail and cool planes. “The Blue Ghost,” as it is known, starred as the USS Hornet and a Japanese ship during filming for the 2001 film Pearl Harbor. It remains ship-shape and ready for its close-up.

aquarium

Texas State Aquarium

The next morning begins with a visit to the 182-acre South Texas Botanical Gardens and Nature Center on the far edge of the city’s Southside zone.

Locals birthed the privately funded gardens in 1983 when there was nothing but fields nearby, executive director Michael Womack says. Since moving in 1996 to its current site along Oso Creek, the complex is part of a cobbled greenbelt adjacent to the creek that a spreading Corpus is trying to protect, stretching from Oso Bay to the edge of King Ranch.

“Every time you come you will see something different,” says Womack, involved here for 20 years. “You will see different flowers in bloom, different birds or animals.”

Two miles of trails wind through gardens and conservatories of orchids, bromeliads, roses and plumeria. Wetlands cover 165 acres.

Don’t leave town without getting a taste of the city’s vibrant local art community.

Southside’s Art Center of Corpus Christi has a mission to nurture regional artists. Its hallways and exhibition space pop with lively regional works; some brighten the adjacent Citrus Bayfront Bistro. The Art Museum of South Texas features 100 pieces of Mexican folk art gathered over the past two decades among its 1,500 permanent works.

art museum

The Art Museum of South Texas

The museums extend their hours the first Friday of each month during Artwalk, when La Retama Park is filled with music, food trucks and art vendors.

At Southside’s Water Street Market, the Texas Surf Museum (“Just like the waves, the museum is free!”) is a visual feast of the state’s underappreciated surfing culture. Every imaginable type of surfboard is on display.

Moving through a courtyard to the Executive Surf Club (a live music, food and craft beer haven for locals), you’ll find tiled stars marking the South Texas Music Walk of Fame. The walk, founded in 2004, honors South Texas musical artists in diverse musical traditions. Each year on the first Friday of June, six new stars are added, with a flurry of parties and live music. Among the honorees: Guy Clark, Selena, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez, Doug Sahm, George Strait and Kris Kristofferson.

There is no live music on the Surf Club patio this night, but an eclectic group of locals filters through.

Deep into the club’s funky buzz, Shaver’s recent comments about her adopted home reverberate.

“I love living by the water, being by the water. I couldn’t imagine not being by the water now.”

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