When we left Goose Island SP it was still raining a bit as we drove through Rockport. We stopped for some groceries and ate our fresh Crab salad (the area is known for crab) by the water and the giant Blue Crab. We saw three large oil rigs setup close to the channel crossing and it seemed they were there for servicing. We had to take another free ferry crossing to get to Port Aransas and they had us park right at the front of the ferry so we had a good view for the short crossing. Once there we checked in to the I.B. MaGee County Park and because they were full in the hookup area they gave us a boondock site right on the beach. Our main reason to stop in Port Aransas was to see the University of Texas Marine Science Institute Education Centre and the National Estuarine Research Reserve and on the way over we saw this bird of prey but we weren’t sure what type of bird it was. They had some aquariums with local sea life and it was interesting to see this Ocellated Flounder. They also had several display cases of Sea Beans and we had started collecting these from our beach walks so it was great to learn more about them. We also saw this 360 lb. skull of a Sei whale that had been dragged up in a shrimp trawling net in 2002. The Sei whale is the third largest of the world’s whales (behind Blue and Fin whales) and is a fairly rare find in the Gulf of Mexico.
After the Marine Science area we went in to the National Estuarine area and it was interesting to see this map of the NERR locations as we had now been to all of the Reserves along this section of the Gulf coast. There were several display boards like the next one that showed how water conditions had impacted the Blue Crab harvest although the Shrimp fishery was still in good shape. In front of the centre they had a really cool fish statue where there were several other marine species sculpted to form the larger fish to show the interdependencies between marine life. Next we walked around the outside display area and along the Aransas Pass shipping channel where it was cool to see this large Oil processing ship come in. We saw around a dozen dolphins swimming around in the channel and several species of birds including Brown Pelicans, Blue Herons, Cormorants, and White Egrets. There were lots of fishermen on the jetty and most seemed to just be catching snags on the rocks but we saw one fishermen carrying in a 40+ lb Black Drum fish (didn’t get a photo)! Back in the park office we did a blog post and read about the German U-Boats that had been seen in this area in 1942 due to the importance of the oil storage containers strategically. The next morning we got up early to see a glorious sunrise on the beach. Sharon might just get used to this early morning rising;-)
Our next stop was Padre Island National Seashore. This is part of the National Park system but it’s awkward to get in as the campsites are first come first served, nothing can be booked in advance. We arrived around 10:30 am and after talking with several people we were able to find a good site that was vacating that day. The sites didn’t have Electric or Water so we filled our tanks from a central location and we were fine for electricity with our batteries, solar panels, and generator. We started to go for a bike ride to the visitor centre but realized that I had a flat front tire! Luckily we had a spare tube and tire we had purchased so instead of looking for the leak we just swapped out both the tube and the tire. Later we’ll patch the tube so we have a backup. I guess you can tell we’ve been doing lots of riding since this is our second flat bike tire on this trip and we’d never had one in the 10 prior years of owning these bikes;-) At the visitor centre we got a view from the observation deck and learned that Padre Island is the largest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. This area is a major stop over point for migrating birds. Cattle grazing had severely damaged the island so it was ceased in 1971 and has recovered substantially. Now the largest risk is rising sea levels as the lagoon side of the island is low and will be covered even if the water levels rise 3 to 5’. The Kemps’ Ridley sea turtle was on the brink of extinction due to loss of beach nesting grounds in Mexico but now through a concerted effort they have been hatching eggs and releasing turtles from Padre Island so they will come back there to nest. The beach is 70 miles long and because it is undeveloped it is a good alternate nesting location. In the afternoon we went for a long bike ride along the beach looking for seashells and seeing all the garbage that had floated ashore. Due to the way the gulf currents flow this island collects a large portion of the garbage. On Saturday they were having one of their beach cleanup days. If we were still at the park we would have taken part. Since we wouldn’t be around, Sharon did her part collecting 4 large foil balloons that ended up on the beach. You can drive two wheel vehicles to the 12 mile mark and then after that you need 4 wheel drive to reach the south end of the island. The ride south was very pleasant but the ride back to the campground was very physical with the wind almost knocking us off our bikes. The beer prize at the end was great;-) That night we went out to watch the stars which were very clear due to no moon but what was even cooler was seeing Bioluminescence in the waves! ( Bioluminescence Images ) This phenomenon is caused by millions of Noctiluca plankton that use a chemical process to produce the light. The wind and therefore the waves were quite strong and as the waves rolled over they lit up with a magical light. I tried everything possible on my camera to get a photo or video of this phenomena but this shot was the best I could do. You’ll have to trust us that it was incredibly cool to see!
The next morning we got up early again (partly because several generators started up at 6 am) so we could watch the sunrise and in the shot you can see Sharon looking for seashells since she was first to the beach that morning;-) We went for a 20+ km ride with our first stop being the Novillo Line Cattle Ranching camp, at least what was left of it. They had these types of camps every 15 miles along the island back in the ranching days up to the early 70’s. Then we went to the Bird Basin campground to check it out. We were very happy we hadn’t ended up there as the sites were side by side in a parking lot with no picnic tables and there was major construction going on to the road that went in to the campsite. Once there we saw a Whimbrel bird and watched some fishermen wading in the lagoon. Our next stop was the Grassland Nature Trail which was a short loop but showed lots of the plants in the dune area. It would likely be very spectacular in the spring when the flowers are out. We continued past the entry gate and went to the North Beach access road as we had decided to ride back along the beach instead of taking the main road. When we stopped for lunch we saw a flock of birds coming towards us in a V and at first we thought the Canadian Geese had decided to go home early but it turned out to be a flock of Brown Pelicans;-) We found a driftwood log for a lunch spot and continued riding down the almost deserted beach. In the evening we walked to the visitor centre so we could listen to the volunteer talk on Sea Beans. The presenter had lots of samples and explained how she hunted for them along the Padre Island Beach. On the way back along the beach in the dark we looked for sea beans and saw tons of ghost crabs, this guy was even eating a cricket!
We stopped to get groceries in Corpus Christi and we saw this tasty looking Chocolate Bar bouquet in the florist area;-) Once on South Padre Island (about a 5 hour drive) we checked in to the Isla Blanca County Park. They only had spots available near the marina but our spot was right on the corner with a great view. The next day we rode around the park to see the El Cristo de los Pescadores statue which was a memorial for all the local fishermen who had gone out to sea and never returned. We saw the South Padre Island fine white sand beach and then went to the Tourist Information office to see the Island’s biggest sandcastle. It was done by Andy Hancock and they use river sand as it had more clay content so would last longer. It took him over 1000 hours to make this one and they use a diluted wood glue solution on top to help preserve the outside surface it so it will last longer. South Padre Island is known as the Sandcastle Capital of the world and they have annual competitions. They have a sandcastle tour where you go to local businesses to see other sandcastles so we decided to do that the following day.
In the afternoon the Coastal Studies Lab was open so we went to the tour the facility. They had skeletons of local marine life like the Alligator Gar fish, display cases with a large Seashell collection, aquarium tanks with interesting creatures like the Sea Hare (also called the Ink Fish as they produce a purple dye), and 894 lb. Blue Marlin caught in the Gulf, and of course a sandcastle made specifically for the lab. Near our campsite there were several day cruise boats that went out for Dolphin watching and some teak dolphin sculptures for one of the restaurants that were also carved by Andy Hancock.
The next day we decided to do a long bike ride to see the Sandcastles, the Birding and Nature Centre, the Craft show at the Convention Centre, and the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre. The ride there was tougher than the ride home due to the winds. I’ve grouped the photos in to sections and captioned them so they should be self-explanatory. Here the Sandcastles:
Here are the butterflies, birds and creatures from the Birding and Nature Centre:
Here are the shots from the painted wall at the convention centre and the Sea Turtle Rescue Centre. We were lucky here because there were some Naturalists in training here so we got to sit in on a lecture about the Kemp’s Ridley turtle. There were originally up to 40,000 nests along the Mexico coast and they had declined to near extinction but now there are 11,000 nests left in Mexico and about 200 nests on South Padre Island. The rescue centre takes injured sea turtles (usually Green) and brings them back to health so they can be released again in to the wild. The Green Sea Turtles are very social so they come in to contact with humans and have a higher probability of being injured.
That night we went out for dinner and saw a glimpse of sunset on the way to the Sea Ranch restaurant. We had cream cheese and Jalapeno filled shrimp wrapped in bacon for appetizer and Sharon had a combo dinner with Gulf fish, shrimp and scallops and I had Blackened Red Snapper with Key Lime Pie for dessert. Fantastic food but the restaurant was a little noisy as it was Saturday night with big groups. Overall we really preferred the seclusion of North Padre Island over the hustle and bustle of South Padre Island but they both have spectacular beaches.
After 2.5 months travelling along the Gulf Coast we now say goodbye and start the journey inland along the Mexico/Texas border but we have many great memories from the Gulf.