The University of Texas at Austin's Marine Science Institute (UTMSI) in Port Aransas, Texas, dedicated its new sea turtle building on 21 August 1999. The new ARK building came about as the result of some generous gifts from individuals and foundations. Most of the donations came from concerned Texans, but others came from as far afield as Boston and Bermuda. The leading light in garnering these gifts, was Edie McAllister of San Antonio and Port Aransas. Mrs. McAllister, a long-time member of the UTMSI Marine Science Advisory Council, was given a tour of the ARK three years ago on a typical hot South Texas summer day. She was concerned by the summertime problems faced by the animals of the ARK; namely the uncontrolled growth of algae and high water temperatures in the uncovered outside turtle tanks (conversely, in winter, water temperatures dip too low and inside tanks had to be found for the turtles each year). At first, the suggestion was to build some proper shade structures for the tanks, but soon, a kernel of an idea came that it might be possible to build a permanent and substantial facility designed specifically to house sea turtles and sea birds in need of rehabilitation. Mrs. McAllister was dogged in her determination to find funding for the ARK. That determination has now borne fruit and the ribbon-cutting at the ARK took place at 11:45am on Saturday, 21 August 1999.
After completion of the basic ARK structure by the contractor, the installation of tanks, pumps, filters, air-conditioning, plumbing, and electrical installation has been done by the UTMSI Maintenance staff. There remains some further construction work to be done in the next few months, but on dedication day, the special re-circulating sea water system was in place and the ARK's sea turtles are in their new home. University of Texas at Austin President, Larry Faulkner spoke at the opening to members of the Marine Advisory Council, UTMSI faculty and senior staff, and invited guests.
The seeds of the ARK came about with an unsuccessful attempt to captively breed a pair of the endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles twenty years ago. While the pair became "friendly", the female did not lay eggs on the artificial beach constructed in one of the concrete tanks at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. The tanks had been built in the nineteen fifties and were the site of some famous ecological experiments done by Dr. H.T. Odum, who was director of UTMSI at the time. These same tanks have been used since the early 1980's to house injured and sick sea turtles and one of them, converted into the "Gazebo", now houses sick sea birds. The idea of rehabilitating sea turtles and birds came about from the beach surveys done by Tony Amos starting in 1978. Amos has conducted regular surveys of Mustang Island Gulf beach continuously since that time. In the course of studying this barrier island beach, Amos started finding sea turtles and birds, usually dead at the shoreline, but occasionally a live animal would show up. In 1983, a mini-epidemic of distressed sea turtles came ashore. Several of these were Kemp's Ridley turtles that had been released offshore after being head started in a program designed to save this critically endangered animal. At first they were re-released offshore soon after coming in, using the UTMSI's research vessel LONGHORN, or when appropriate, they were released from the beach or the jetties. Then, several animals came ashore that were entangled in marine debris, especially Hawksbills, that are very rare in Texas. These needed treatment and could not simply be released.
And so began the ARK, maintained on UTMSI grounds with the approval of the University, but operated by volunteers and by sporadic funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Food and supplies came from voluntary donations. One of the most surprising donations came about in typical Port Aransas fashion. While sitting at a famous friendly watering hole, Amos was asked by another patron if he needed some financial help with the turtles. "That would be nice!", Amos replied, and put the offered check in his pocket, thinking it would be rude to look at the amount. The next day, he was amazed to see the check was for $3,000! After a phone call to make sure the donor had not consumed too many longnecks and put in too many zeros, the check was deposited into the turtle account. It was used to buy the first recirculating tank system and convert a disused building (that became the "Turtlearium") that served us and the turtles for ten years before being replaced by the ARK. Graduate student (now Dr.) Pam Plotkin did her thesis work in the 1980's on loggerhead feeding ecology here, and later went on to become an authority on sea turtles. Ten years ago, Andrea (Andi) Wickham joined UTMSI as Amos' assistant and has since done most of the coordination of animal rehabilitation at the ARK. The ARK has handled over four hundred injured sea turtles ranging in size from half an ounce to nearly 200 lb. Of these, two hundred have been released to the wild. Over a thousand birds have been at the ARK over the years.
Some of our famous inhabitants have been:
"Tripod", a green sea turtle with a missing front flipper. Tripod, weighing a few ounces was at first in one of the tanks at the UTMSI Visitor's Center but was moved to the ARK in 1986 weighing in at 11 lbs. In 1990, Tripod was accepted by the newly opened Texas State Aquarium where it proceeded to eat the artificial barnacles on the main tank's oil platform legs. Cured of that habit, Tripod still resides at TSA and is now seventeen years old.
The "Irish Ridley" was found cold-stunned on an Irish beach in late October 1992, thousands of miles from its normal range. It was treated at the Dublin Aquarium and in the Spring of 1993 the Aquarium contacted Tony Amos to see if its release in the Gulf of Mexico could be arranged. Accompanied by three jolly Irishmen, Leonardo (named by the people who found him, not after the famous Italian genius, but after a character in a certain TV cartoon called Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles) flew by Aer Lingus to New York and then to Corpus Christi non-stop on a corporate jet. After acclimatization in the ARK, the Irish Ridley was released on 16 May 1993 and has not been heard of since. There is hope that we will see Leonardo again. Blood tests showed that he was a she! Sometime in the millennium year, she will be ready to come ashore and lay her eggs.
Another long-distance rescue several years ago was of an adult white pelican (North America's largest bird) that was stranded in winter in North Carolina. The bird was flown to Houston via commercial airliner, in the largest pet carrier that could be found. It was then driven to Port Aransas, acclimatized for a few days, taken by boat to San Jose Island, and released among a flock of white pelicans that greeted it as one of them.
One of the recent ARK inhabitants is Barnacle Bill, a loggerhead sea turtle missing both front flippers. BB was rescued on 4 July 1997 after two earlier attempts to capture him had been thwarted by well-meaning beach goers who pushed him back out to sea. Named because he was covered in barnacles and other marine growth, Barnacle Bill's wounds were fresh and possibly caused by some act of human cruelty. He weighed 95 lbs. then and 160 lbs. now. It is possible that Barnacle Bill is a female like Leonardo.
A piece I wrote recently:
The ARK could have literally been afloat just hours after it was dedicated. A group of members of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute Marine Advisory Council and their guests, the President of the University of Texas, Dr. Larry Faulkner, Mrs. Edith McAllister of San Antonio, Mr. Perry and Mrs. Nancy Lee Bass of Fort Worth, the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Dr. Mary Ann Rankin and State Representative Gene Seaman and his wife helped us launch the ARK. By three in the afternoon, the last tour of the ARK was given but by that time another visitor called Bret had changed into a category four hurricane and was setting sites on Port Aransas, or so it seemed. It seemed that the new building, specially strengthened to hold the twenty- seven tons of seawater in its tanks would be put to the test a day after it was dedicated. To leave you in no suspense, we report that the ARK survived without a blemish, although we were spared the full force of Bret. We did get a record 14.5 inches of rain and 60 mph winds.
The ARK has ten tanks, supplied with recirculating filtered seawater. As of now, twenty-two sea turtles reside in the tanks, including eleven hatchlings; two ridleys, eight hawksbills, a loggerhead, and a green. Two larger loggerheads were released offshore recently from our research vessel LONGHORN. We did have to house five brown pelicans, twelve laughing gulls, a sora, a cattle egret, and three rock doves in safe quarters during the storm. All are back outside now, and the sora was released. Each year in late summer and fall, we get a number of hawksbill turtles washing ashore among the debris. This year we expect more due to Bret and now Tropical Depression Number Seven. We believe most of these come from nesting sites in Campeche, Mexico. Usually they are very thin and have marine growth on their shells in the form of hydroids and bryozoans. They weigh an ounce or two. We will keep them over winter for release in the spring when they should weigh a couple of pounds (thanks to the food your contribution provides). A larger hawksbill came in a few weeks ago in very bad shape. It could not dive and swam desperately around the tank on its side or even upside-down. Feeding it was an adventure as it could only snap for food above the water surface. We are happy to report that this animal is now recovering. Old Inglesides, a 40 lb. loggerhead turtle found floating in an industrial canal in Ingleside on July 7, took food for the first time. This turtle had not fed for two months, although we have given it fluids. Taking food by mouth is the first step towards complete recovery, although it will be some time convalescing.