Located adjacent to the state aquarium in Corpus Christi, the new Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue at the Texas State Aquarium will be operational on March 2, 2023. The 20,000-square-foot facility will serve as a base of operations for the region’s wildlife rehab program. Animals rehabbed at the new center will include dolphins, otters, birds, and loggerhead turtles — which are washing up on shorelines in record numbers.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department contributed $3 million to the project while $2.5 million from the port authority, $2 million from ExxonMobil, $1 million from the state, a few million more from various other corporate and individual donors.
Corpus Christi voters approved a $75 million bond in 2020 for various projects, including $3 million for the rescue center.
The Texas State Aquarium — the largest aquarium in the state and fifth largest in the country — will oversee the new center’s operations.
The rescue program itself has been around since 1995, beginning in Corpus due to the abundance of sea wildlife, but the functions as the program is currently constituted began in around 2005.
The project has been in the works for a few years. Gilbert said that the COVID-19 pandemic made things particularly difficult, and related supply shortages are continuing to cause issues for it like they are all over the globe.
Aquarium President and CEO Jesse Gilbert told The Texan at a fundraiser for the new center on Friday that Hurricane Harvey caused a massive spike in the number of animals that need rehabilitation, driving the annual number of “patients” from 400 to the thousands.
He added that the 2021 winter storm sent roughly 1,600 turtles to the aquarium.
“The aquarium has built this portfolio of being able to do mass rescues of sea animals and we quickly realized that we were running low on the operating space that we needed, and that’s how the conceptualization of this new center came about,” Gilbert said.
Because of the recent intake of injured wildlife, if the center became operational today, Gilbert said it would already be at capacity: “We will literally cut the ribbon with it completely full.”
The rehab time varies based on the species and specific injury, but Gilbert said the longest such case occurred with a dolphin calf that took nine to 10 months to heal and required round-the-clock attention. Loggerhead turtles, meanwhile, usually take two and a half to three months for rehab.
“It is an interesting political coalition of oil and gas, the city, the state, but I think it shows that you can really have all those different functions that play a role in creating a really healthy ecosystem,” Gilbert said.
Corpus is uniquely situated for this kind of center due to its unique geography and the variety of species that inhabit the bay. Gilbert said that he sees this center as providing a blueprint for other places to establish their own programs.
Guiding the center will be the 33-year-old aquarium, which Gilbert now oversees, which has grown from a small regional aquarium to one of the largest in the country. The center will put another feather in the cap of the aquarium that has become one of the largest intrastate travel destinations in Texas. Gilbert says its economic impact in 2021 was $120 million.
“I think about the rescue program as you’ve got this incredible place where you can come and have a great experience with your family, you can see this incredible view, and you’ve got all this phenomenal science and conservation going on,” he concluded.
“And so, when you buy a ticket here, it’s funding the center and everything else we do. So, the capital expense of the [rescue center’s] building is done, but we’ve still got to feed the animals, we’ve got to pay the staff. And so that’s how we do it and people visit and have a great time here.”
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.