“I didn’t know we had a national park here!”
You have no idea how many times I’ve heard that since arriving last summer at Padre Island National Seashore. I’m an intern, a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador, charged with community outreach in advance of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary this August.
It’s understandable that Padre Island is a mystery to some. The National Seashore is a 30-minute drive from Corpus Christi and along the way there are a number of free beaches, while a park pass for the seashore costs $10. But people are starting to come around. Our Mardi Gras Parade, for example, opened a lot of eyes — which pop even further when folks get to the seashore.
People tend to think of us as a typical beach: sand, water, maybe some dolphins. Once they step into our visitor center, however, they’re greeted by a saltwater tank filled with tri-colored sea anemones that resemble electric carnations, and amazing puffer fish — a cute but lethal cross between a porcupine and a balloon.
From there, in our Hidden Treasures program, we walk down to the beach and explore a shoreline teeming with tiny jellyfish, ghost crabs, minnows and more. That’s about when the “wow” moment happens, as our guests gaze out at the Gulf of Mexico and start to imagine all the other marine life out there and beyond. Then I hear another frequently repeated statement: “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Much the way our park rangers use little creatures to hint at the vast diversity of Earth’s oceans, I use Padre Island National Seashore to illustrate the infinite grandeur of America’s national parks. After all, the Park Service’s centennial campaign is called “Find Your Park.” These lands — mountains and geysers, caverns and cliff dwellings, and, yes, stunning seashores — have been preserved for your wonder. And there’s nothing like nature to renew the soul. Just ask anyone who has watched a sea turtle hatchling crawl into the surf.
Nesting season is just about to begin, and I’m now training to go down island, find turtle nests and collect eggs for incubation. We do this to increase the survival rate. The species most commonly found nesting here, the Kemp’s ridley, is the world’s most endangered sea turtle species, although the tide is turning. Dr. Donna Shaver, the chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island, is recognized around the world for spurring these creatures’ comeback. Like me, Dr. Shaver came to the seashore as an intern with the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit that provides young adults with opportunities to make a difference on public lands and even start a career. Given the acclaimed staff and programs at Padre Island, I couldn’t pass this up.
I started last summer, just in time to assist with the first releases of the season. I had to obtain a permit before I could hold these fragile, protected creatures. The size of an Oreo, they fit in the palm of your hand, and as I showed my hatchling to visitors, young and old alike, you should have seen their faces light up.
It was an incredible experience for me, too. I began to realize the effect I had on everything around me. I thought about how I could better treat the natural world around me. I focused on what I could do to make this sea turtle, the one in my hands, one of the lucky hatchlings who would make it.
Read the entire column in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times…
Photo: Padre Island National Seashore’s float in the recent Mardi Gras parade