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South Padre Wild

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Animal Encounters Abound On This Lively South Texas Island

Our first glimpse of South Padre Island’s high-rise skyline and the super-modern Queen Isabella Causeway linking the South Texas mainland and this stretch of white sand makes my heart sink. We’ve driven our motorhome to this island in hopes of finding nature and wildlife; not concrete and development. But it doesn’t take us long to discover there’s plenty of wild left on South Padre Island.

We’d motored over from the Rio Grande Valley, a favorite hot spot for RVers. Along the way, we pass miles of flat farmland and tidelands, peppered with tall yuccas blooming with fluffy white flowers and dozens of hawks swooping from telephone poles along the four-lane highway.
South Padre Island mapIn the mainland beach town of Port Isabel, we pause long enough to snap a few photos of the iconic Port Isabel lighthouse. Though the beacon is long gone and the tower now stands surrounded by beachy shops and restaurants, it’s the only lighthouse open to the public along the Texas coastline. A quick trip up 75 stairs provides spectacular views of South Padre Island and the Gulf of Mexico.

Those interested in military history can take a left and head 20 minutes into Brownsville. The Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park is where the first shot of the Mexican-American War was fired. The victorious outcome of that war doubled the size of the United States. Ironically, while Brownsville is the site of the first battle with Mexico, it’s also where the final land battle of the U.S. Civil War was fought in 1865.

Today we’re more interested in beaches than battles so we press onward over the causeway, which at 2.6 miles is the longest bridge in Texas. This roadway, named after the Queen of Castile who 
financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery to the New World, offers sparkling views of the turquoise waters of the Laguna Madre from its 85-foot height.

For many, South Padre Island is renowned as a spring break destination for high school and college students. However, spring break happens for only a few weeks, and the rest of the time this island is left mostly to the grown-ups and the wildlife.

An Ibis spreads its wings at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

An Ibis spreads its wings at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

Padre Island, a 113-mile-long strip of sand arcing along the southern tip of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, is the largest of the state’s barrier islands and the world’s longest. South Padre, where we’re headed, is the island’s southern third, separated from North Padre by manmade Port Mansfield Channel. The town of South Padre is where the population is concentrated and the rest, as they say, is for the birds – and the turtles and the dolphins. But more about them later.

South Padre has two RV parks and we’ve heard great things about South Padre Island KOA so we pull the rig into this 200-site park.

The extensive boardwalk at the 
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center keeps visitors and birders high and dry while offering up-close-
and-personal wildlife viewing.

The extensive boardwalk at the 
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center keeps visitors and birders high and dry while offering up-close-
and-personal wildlife viewing.

The park is right along Laguna Madre and many sites have views of the water and the causeway. In fact, several RVers tell us they prefer this park to many in the Florida Keys because it has the same balmy weather and waterfront scenery for less money.

The water-view sites have long been taken so we settle for a mid-section, white-rock-topped pull-in under the palms with full hookups for about half the price and content ourselves with dog walks along the water’s edge. At dinnertime, we wander over to Pier 19, a restaurant next door, and enjoy watching the sun set over Laguna Madre. As I sip my tropical drink, it’s easy to see why RVers spend weeks or even months in this tropical haven.

Birds and Dolphins

The next morning, we wake to full sun and gentle breezes. After a quick breakfast, we head to South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, one of nine World Birding Centers that stretch from the top of the Rio Grande Valley to the Gulf.

This center is a unique collaboration with the island’s water treatment plant and features 4,800 feet of boardwalk and seven birding blinds along nutrient-rich tidelands loaded with birds, including cormorants, sandpipers, ibis, herons, curlews, plovers, brown pelicans and the magnificent roseate spoonbill. In several ponds, ducks paddle about the reeds. It’s a birder’s paradise and we join several dozen nature lovers armed with cameras and binoculars trying to capture the sights.

The center’s boardwalk extends across tidelands and ponds created by effluent pumped from the treatment plant. While the plant’s industrial machinery next door contrasts sharply with the natural setting, the water from the plant provides food for wildlife while wetland plants cleanse the water. The center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., but avid birders have access to the boardwalk early and late via a fee-entry gate system.

The center also has an attractive clapboard building housing an audi-torium, a small exhibit space and a five-story tower with expansive views of Laguna Madre, the beaches and dunes, the Gulf of Mexico and the island’s skyline. From the tower’s viewing deck, we spot an osprey and a northern harrier.

We while away the hours watching the magnificent birds until hunger finally overcomes us. A local suggests Daddy’s Seafood and Cajun Kitchen, a restaurant right on the main drag, and it’s a terrific choice. We happily dine on blackened fish and big, garlicky grilled shrimp. We take pieces of cheesecake and key lime pie to enjoy in the motorhome and buy a couple of bottles of Dirty Al’s blackening seasoning so we can have a taste of this place later on the road.

Port Isabel Lighthouse, built in 1852, was occupied by soldiers from both sides of the Civil War and is in the National Register of Historic Places.

Port Isabel Lighthouse, built in 1852, was occupied by soldiers from both sides of the Civil War and is in the National Register of Historic Places.

In the afternoon, we meet up with Capt. Scarlet Colley, a self-proclaimed “dolphin whisperer,” on the Skimmer 2, a small boat operated by Colley’s South Padre Island Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center, a tour company specializing in intimate encounters with dolphins. Unlike larger dolphin-watching boats, the Skimmer holds only six passengers; a young couple and their 9-year-old son join us. Moments after we motor into the bay, the dark silhouette of a bottlenose dolphin breaches the water.

“Oh, they are welcoming us!” exclaims Colley as the big marine mammal crashes back into the bay, sending a rooster tail of spray skyward. “They sense we are coming. They are inviting us.” Colley eases back on the throttle and dolphins, their grey and white bodies swirling around the boat, suddenly surround us.

I have never been this close to these intelligent creatures and it’s magical. As they swim on their sides, showing us their bellies, I see old scars and even barnacles on their skin. Colley, who’s been observing several pods here for nearly 20 years, says the marks are from encounters with other animals or from boat propellers.

When a large barge churns by, the dolphins, like little kids, rush over to surf its wake. Then they swim back to play with us. After 90 minutes and encounters with at least two dozen dolphins, we reluctantly turn toward home.

A rescued turtle surfaces in one of the rehabilitation tanks at Sea Turtle Inc.

A rescued turtle surfaces in one of the rehabilitation tanks at Sea Turtle Inc.

Saving the Turtles

The following day, after an evening enjoying the KOA’s pool and hot tub, we head for Sea Turtle Inc., a small, grassroots nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates sea turtles. When we arrive, a talk is going on. “Back in the 1940s, you’d find 40,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles coming onto the beaches here to lay their eggs,” the volunteer tells the group. “That number dropped to 250. Last year, thanks to the efforts of volunteers, we had 7,000 of them.”

We wander around large circular pools filled with turtles – Kemp’s, hawksbills, leatherbacks, green sea turtles and the massive loggerheads. Sea Turtle Inc., rehabilitates all five species of turtles that occur in the Gulf and returns many to the wild. “If they have 75 percent of their flippers, they can usually go back to sea,” explains Kat Lillie, the organization’s assistant curator. “Many things happen to their flippers – sharks, crabs, boat propellers.”

Allison is a 10-year-old green turtle who has lost three of her flippers. In the wild, she’d die. But here at Sea Turtle Inc., they’ve built a prosthesis they strap to her shell that enables her to swim almost normally. Budro, another turtle who can’t be released, is missing two flippers that got tangled in fishing line. Because the agency has rehabilitation hospital and zoological permits, it can keep the turtles too ill or injured for release.

“We couldn’t do this without volunteers,” says Lillie. “They’re our lifeblood.” Two hundred volunteers, many RVers who come for the snowbird season, contribute 4,000 hours annually feeding turtles, maintaining the center, staffing the gift shop and patrolling the beach for stranded turtles.

We step into the cramped gift shop and see six critically ill turtles on the floor. “This is our intensive care unit,” Lillie says. She points to a 60-pound turtle on a wet towel, its normally green skin bluish. “We think he’s got an intestinal infection, but we’re not sure.”

Plans for expansion are underway, but for now, visitors must dodge sick turtles until the agency raises enough money. And it costs plenty to rescue these gentle giants. Gerry, one of their biggest green sea turtles, consumes 500 heads of romaine lettuce every day.

Before we leave, we write a $100 check for a new building brick. As we pass Allison’s tank, she raises her head. Call me crazy, but I swear that turtle gives me a big smile.

For More Information

RVs park under the palms at South Padre Island KOA.

RVs park under the palms at South Padre Island KOA.

Sea Turtle Inc.
956-761-4511 | www.seaturtleinc.org

South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center
956-243-8179 | www.spibirding.com

South Padre Island 
Dolphin Research & 
SeaLife Nature Center
956-299-1957 | www.spinaturecenter.com

South Padre Island KOA
956-761-5665 | www.koa.com/campgrounds/


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