State aquarium’s new wildlife rescue center enables public to observe animals being saved

Photo of Richard Webner

Starting this week, visitors to the Texas State Aquarium will be able to watch as veterinarians and marine biologists rescue sea turtles, dolphins, manatees and other animals that live in Corpus Christi Bay.

On Thursday, the aquarium is opening its new Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue, a 26,000-square-foot facility with state-of-the-art veterinary equipment, including one of the few CT scans in the U.S. devoted to the care of wildlife. The $15 million facility features an emergency operations center where animals will be treated after extreme weather events such as hurricanes and cold snaps, as well as a gallery from which members of the public can watch the efforts.

Since 2005, the aquarium’s rescue program has led to more than 4,100 animals being released back into the wild, including nearly 2,900 sea turtles. The rescue center will enable it to help even more animals.

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Another purpose of the center is to raise awareness among the public about the species that live in Corpus Christi Bay and the challenges they face, said Jesse Gilbert, the aquarium’s CEO.

“You can visit, see these endangered species going through the rehabilitation program, and you can actually be there when we release them back into the wild,” he said. “It’s a pretty unique situation. That only happens in Texas.”

The center is more than 50 years in the making. As far back as the late 1960s, when Corpus Christi residents got the idea for what would become the Texas State Aquarium, it had been the plan to build a wildlife rescue and research facility as the final component, Gilbert said.

After decades of fundraising, construction of the aquarium began in the late 1980s, and it opened to the public in 1990. Since then, it has undergone several expansions, including the construction of Dolphin Bay, a habitat for bottlenose dolphins, in 2003. The rescue center’s opening on March 2 coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.

Gilbert recently sat to discuss the new facility, the threat that fishing line poses to marine animals and what his team might learn from putting an oyster through the CT scan. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jesse Gilbert, president and CEO at the Texas State Aquarium, looks up at sharks swimming at the aquarium in Corpus Christi.

Jesse Gilbert, president and CEO at the Texas State Aquarium, looks up at sharks swimming at the aquarium in Corpus Christi.

Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

Q: What makes this facility state of the art?

A: First and foremost, the capacity. We’ll have some of the largest capacity for coastal wildlife in the United States. We can hold somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000 sea turtles at one time; we can hold a large number of dolphins or manatees. The other thing is the medical side. The new center will have the only CT scan dedicated solely to wildlife in the state of Texas. There’s about five or six in the country.

And then it’s the infrastructure around seawater — how we bring salt water in from Corpus Christi Bay. We use that water to make this large rescue center work.

Q: The facility is directly on the water, right?

A: It is. It’s about 10 yards from Corpus Christi Bay. The reason we can move so many animals through the program is because we have access to a healthy Corpus Christi Bay. We’ll be able to use that water to move and save endangered species in big numbers.

Q: What might the CT scan be used for?

A: The best way to describe it is it’s like a trauma center in human medicine. An animal comes in, and sometimes we’ve got to do a number of different diagnostics to figure out what’s wrong. A CT scanner, much like in human medicine, provides us much, much more imagery than just an X-ray. But I think what’s exciting about the CT is the possibilities of what it can do. We can scan things with the CT scanner that really have never been scanned before. When you’re looking at corals, or oysters, or other organisms that just don’t make a CT scan in human medicine or veterinary medicine, we will be able to scan that.

Q: You might put an oyster through it? That’s an amusing image.

A: It is. It’s something that really hasn’t been done before. Oyster aquaculture is gaining some momentum in Texas. One of the other things around oysters is that oysters produce pearls. Well, there’s not necessarily a good way to see that. Now, with the CT scanner, that might be possible.

Q: What benefits come from the public being able to watch the rescue process?

A: Ultimately, awareness. What’s unique about Texas is the connection to nature. I think Texans really understand nature and wildlife. When you talk about favorite Texas memories, most people go back to some version of nature — hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, whatever it might be. It’s not only bringing awareness to the populations of endangered species that call Texas home, but preserving that legacy of connection to nature, for Texans. You know, we want to make sure that Texas stays wild.

Q: One goal of the project is to educate the public about environmental issues. How do you do that?

A: I think that’s what’s fantastic about the rescue center. When people come in and they see a baby turtle, a baby otter, a baby dolphin, it could be a baby manatee — you hook them with that. You know, here’s this animal, it has this challenge in the environment. That visual of seeing an animal being rescued is really, really strong. It kind of makes the the storytelling around the challenges they face, and how we all come together to provide solutions for that, a little bit more real. The animals themselves tell the story. It’s just our job to present it well.

Q: People love sea turtles, manatees. Is it harder to get them to care about animals that aren’t so photogenic?

A: Absolutely. (But when) we can protect the environment that supports dolphins and otters and manatees and sea turtles, it’s saving bunch of other species as well. The public might really get behind saving a sea turtle, and really feel strongly about that. But by saving a sea turtle, you’re saving numerous other species.

Q: What are the threats facing the animals?

A: The number one thing that we see at the rescue center now is entanglement in fishing line that hasn’t been disposed of properly. A bird might be entangled. We went through a sea turtle event a few weeks ago where a number of the turtles showed up and they had hooks embedded in their flippers. You know, fishing is an important part of Texas, and we want it to continue to be an important part of Texas. But when you’re done fishing, properly disposing of your fishing line and hooks is important.

Q: Texas is such a fast-growing state. Is development along the Gulf Coast a problem?

A: It’s not in Corpus Christi. I think that’s what this rescue center shows. You’ve got a dynamic group of endangered species — sea turtles, manatees, dolphins — all living in the Corpus Christi Bay area, in the coastal den. You’ve got a very, very important Port of Corpus Christi with all the development, industrial growth, economic development that goes along with that. But I go back to the water. The water in Corpus Christi Bay is really healthy. That’s the only reason we can make this rescue center function as well as it does. So I think Corpus Christi and the coastal bay can serve as a model for how you can have economic development, you can have robust industry, one of the top aquariums in the country, and you can have these healthy populations and make it work.

Q: Is climate change a major threat?

A: You definitely see that climate change can have an impact. Whether or not it’s a direct impact on on the populations that live there, there certainly are warmer ocean temperatures, and that can increase tropical weather. So there’s immediate impacts and then there’s kind of the long-range impacts that you see with higher temperatures in, let’s say, coral reefs.

Q: What weather events are you preparing for now?

A: Right now, over the last four or five years, it’s a constant preparation. We’re either preparing for hurricane season or we’re preparing for a freeze. We’ve got a double responsibility at the aquarium: We have to make sure that the animals that call the aquarium home are safe during both tropical weather and a freeze, so that’s job number one. Then the second part of that becomes, “OK, what happens after the hurricane? Or what happens after the freeze to the wildlife that lives in the area around Corpus Christi?” You’re constantly in planning mode, making sure that you’re as ready as you can be to make that response happen. I would say in the last four or five years, we’ve had a number of tropical systems that have come through, and we’re certainly getting some level of annual freeze now. We’ve been able to get more efficient. We’ve been able to fine tune what those responses look like, how we work with our federal and state agency partners to make sure we pull that off.

Q: How is the aquarium funded?

A: It’s all philanthropic and visitors. When you come to the aquarium and purchase a ticket, that’s how the vast majority of our revenue is accumulated. That’s what pays for a lot of the rescue and research work. We’re very fortunate to have a generous philanthropic community in Corpus Christi, as well as good corporate partners. But we receive no operational funding from the state or from the federal government.

Q: Who are your major corporate partners?

A: On this project, there’s been a number of really good ones. The Port of Corpus Christi, ExxonMobil Foundation, Valero. Whataburger has been a great partner of ours, and so has H-E-B.

Q: How did you end up in this line of work?

A: I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was young. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where there’s not a lot of ocean.

To be honest, it was a trip to SeaWorld in California when I was young that sparked that interest in marine life. So we take that responsibility very seriously. You never know when a kid comes to the aquarium, or they come into the new rescue center, and they see that baby turtle, that otter, that dolphin, whatever it might be — you might be sparking the interest of the next wildlife veterinarian.