Port Aransas

Photo Credit: Aaron Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Soft sand and warm gulf water draws countless tourists to Port Aransas every summer. Conservation efforts made by the city allow visitors to enjoy clean, well-maintained beaches that are teeming with coastal wildlife. 

“As far as accessibility and quality of water and sand go, Port Aransas is the greatest beach in Texas,” said Ann Bracher Vaughan, president and CEO of the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce.

With a variety of possibilities for how to spend your lazy days in the sun, the island offers an environment that emphasizes preserving the area’s natural habitats and native species. 

“Nature tourism is definitely a big draw for us,” said Sheri Henneberger, communications manager for the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce. “We’re a fun family beach town, and we strive to protect the environment we enjoy as well.” 

Port Aransas’ conservation efforts allows abundant opportunities to observe diverse wildlife, hike in state parks, or simply spend some time sunbathing on miles of pristine coastland. Here are a few spots worth checking out when you’re looking to take some time off.

Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center 

Birding aficionados come to the island from all over the world to see a variety of Coastal Bend nesting species including the roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, least grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks and many others. Situated in the Central Flyway, Port Aransas is a base for hundreds of native and migrating species. There are more than 1,500 acres of natural bird watching sites, complete with boardwalks, hiking trails and observatories.

“We have enhanced and preserved many of our natural areas with regard to bird watching,” Vaughan said. “City leaders have been instrumental in preserving natural areas for people to enjoy.”

The Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center is just one of the several nature preserves on the island. A nearly mile-long boardwalk allows tourists to view birds from an up close proximity. Not only are visitors able to observe birds in their natural habitats, but there can also be sightings of the center’s resident American alligators.

San Jose Island 

Boasting 21 miles of pristine Texas coastline, San Jose Island is just a short ferry ride away from Port Aransas. The beaches of this uninhabited island are open to visitors, but closed to vehicles, which allows for a largely untainted environment perfect for swimming, surfing and camping. Located in an area known as the “Fishing Capital of Texas,” some of the best fishing around takes place from the rocky edges of the North Jetty, where anglers can find speckled trout, redfish, flounder and more all up for grabs.  

Mustang Island State Park 

Mustang Island State Park allows visitors vast opportunities for bay fishing, kayaking, birding, golfing, hiking, camping and more. The state park encompasses a whole barrier island ecosystem, containing dunes, coastal grasslands and marshes, which allows ample chances to see wildlife and enjoy impressive vantage points to bird-watch. The park is also a popular place to camp, with electrical hookups available and onshore tent camping
is permitted. 

The University of Texas Marine Science Institute 

Situated on a 3.5-acre salt marsh surrounded by dunes, the Wetlands Education Center at The University of Texas Marine Science Institute serves as an educational resource for visitors. While UT scientists and students research marine life on the grounds, visitors can explore the marsh area and learn about local plant and animal species. The public is invited to participate in seasonal walking tours to learn about the importance of the preservation of wetlands.

The amount of healthy coral reef has taken a dive toward the deep end, but scientists are attempting to help it make a comeback.

Breeding ornamental fish in captivity is becoming a more popular way to reduce coral reef damage.

Joan Holt, the associate director of the Fisheries and Mariculture Lab at UT Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, came up with the idea 20 years ago.

“My interest began while diving in Belize, observing very small juvenile reef fish on isolated coral hummocks in sea grass beds,” Holt said.

Currently, most saltwater ornamentals are caught in the wild, and the fishing process damages the reefs. Holt said she learned about the damage associated with collecting marine ornamentals for the aquarium trade after researching the lifestyles and habitats of ornamental fish.

Although she was unsure whether saltwater fish would successfully breed in captivity, Holt said she gave it a shot to prevent damaging any more coral reefs. Holt said pygmy angel fish and Cuban hogfish were only the first of many successful reproductions.

“We spawn these fish in captivity and hatch out the eggs, which only takes 24 hours, and then hatch out the larvae under varying environmental conditions and planktonic food,” Holt said. “Such research would define optimum conditions for growing the larvae and provide guidelines for habitat requirements.”

Eighteen species of fish and shrimp have now successfully reproduced in captivity and seven different species have survived to adulthood, Holt said. She said this new system of breeding could also boost sales for ornamental fish tanks.

“The marine aquarium trade is a big business,” Holt said. “This could be very good for communities that have previously captured these species in the wild.”

Holt continues to research at UT Port Aransas and shares her knowledge with students.

“I took some classes in Port Aransas over the summer, and I heard about Dr. Holt,” said marine biology senior Alyssa Roach. “I think breeding fish in captivity is definitely better than hurting coral reefs.”

Even students not majoring in marine biology can see the benefit of the idea.

“I think that if it’s good for the environment and it’s good for people, then it’s a good thing,” said urban studies senior Nick Prejean. 

Printed on September 22, 2011 as: Breeding fish in captivity reduces coral reef damage

Researchers at the UT Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas are already preparing for hurricane season. Officials said scientists and animal rehabilitation experts are used to the impact hurricanes have on their work.

Steve Lanoux, assistant director of operations at the institute, said the institute has shut down four times in the last 10 years although only one of those was for a mandatory evacuation during Hurricane Rita. He said every year he revises the institute’s evacuation plan to accommodate for changes at the institute and to the county’s evacuation plan.

Lanoux said island residents can only leave the island by boarding the Texas Department of Transportation’s ferry or by using the Corpus Christi Causeway. He said this makes it a challenge to evacuate the island according to plan.

“If the water floods by over five feet, the highway is not usable and the ferry is not usable either because of the ramp angle,” Lanoux said.
Lanoux said the shutdowns and evacuations of the institute interfere with instruction time and productivity.

“The research staff has to put its research on hold,” Lanoux said. “We remove our seawater pumps [during evacuations] so researchers have to treat water and recirculate it instead of having fresh water for their experiments.”

Animals in the process of rehabilitation are the most vulnerable during hurricane season and must be taken into consideration when planning for evacuation at the UT Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, said Tony Amos, who manages the institute’s Animal Rehabilitation Keep.

Amos said the keep currently houses 30 green sea turtles and many baby birds because their breeding seasons are underway. He said many of the birds will be able to fly on their own by the end of August.

“Every year we try to make sure that the animals that can be released are released before a hurricane is coming,” Amos said. “We do it only if and when they are ready to go, however.”

Amos’ team is ready to evacuate the animals in a boat fitted with cages and in tanks and cages that can be taken by hand if necessary.

“We would probably leave some of the big [sea turtles] in the tank,” Amos said. “Should it overflow they would probably survive. We have some permanent home birds that do not have full use of their wings so those will have to come with us.”

Amos said hurricane season storms bring in most of the animals they care for — including many not indigenous to the area.

“One storm brought in a white tailed tropic,” Amos said. “It’s a beautiful bird with a really long tail, and it’s the symbol of Bermuda. Another storm brought in a rare yellow nosed albatross, but unfortunately it was found dead.”

Candice Mottet, who rehabilitates animals at the institute, said Hurricane Katrina washed many animals on to shore that were in need of constant care. Ike was more devastating to the island, and she took many small reptiles with her when she and other scientists evacuated before the storm.

“I brought home a diamondback terrepin, a red-eared slider, an ornate box turtle and I ended up also bring with me a black cat that had been hanging around our area,” Mottet said. “I had them for approximately a week.”

Mottet said it was a great experience to be able to ensure the safety of the animals she had been trying to rehabilitate.

Danielle Hale, Nueces County emergency management coordinator, said the county is hosting a meeting today at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi to remind the population about hurricane season awareness since peak hurricane activity happens in September and October. She said a tropical storm is currently brewing that will be named Don if it fully develops. She said she hopes it increases the attendance at tonight’s meeting.

Printed on Thursday, July 28, 2011 as: Marine Science Institute plans for animal evacuation