Caribbean Crusade

The Caribbean Journey: a world-class excursion led by the Texas State Aquarium

By: Caroline R. Freeman
Photos by: Dark Lab

The Caribbean Journey is Texas State Aquarium’s monumental addition featuring the best the Caribbean Sea has to offer right here in the Coastal Bend. Decades in the making, the exhibit immerses visitors in the exceptional beauty of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve, a biodiverse region in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. From massive sandbar sharks and delicate, colorful coral formations to vibrant toucans and a two-toed sloth named Xena, this exceptional undertaking will not only dazzle guests, but also be economically significant to the city of Corpus Christi.

So how did this enormous $60 million vision become a reality? It all began more than 30 years ago. “It was part of our original master plan to take our guests on journeys through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” explains president and CEO, Tom Schmid. “The founders came up with the concept back in the mid- ‘80s, so it’s always been a part of our long-term plan. We do strategic planning every five years, and in 2010, we decided at that point that would be a good time to move forward with Caribbean expansion.”

Some said the project was too ambitious for the size of Corpus Christi. The aquarium’s last capital campaign was for $15 million – nearly one-third of the Caribbean campaign. Though he admits it was an intimidating endeavor, Schmid concludes, “We always wanted to create a world-class aquarium in Corpus Christi – one that could compare to the National Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We took on a big vision, but we all felt very strongly we could execute this with the leadership of our campaign committee, board and support from companies and foundations all over Texas.”

The Caribbean Journey is different from other projects at the Texas State Aquarium in many ways. For starters, visitors do not just see the aquarium; guests are immersed in it. The journey begins in the immense, skylight-enclosed jungle with a hundred birds flying overhead. Following the jungle path, natural flora and fauna surround guests as flamingos, toucans and crocodiles can be seen residing in their ecosystems.

“You walk through the aquarium,” Schmid says. “You can see over the top and from many more vantage points. It’s a much more immersive space.” From there, guests are guided through the cenote cavern featuring native cave-dwelling fishes. Guests are given an overhead preview into the 400,000-gallon tank teeming with sharks and tropical fish.

Next, guests visit the Coral Reef exhibit. “Replicating the features of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Coral Reef exhibit gives an immersive look at these incredible ecosystems and the colorful fish that call them home,” according to the aquarium. Guests can view the angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish and many other vibrantly hued species. The Coral Reef not only displays the beauty of these complex environments, but also calls attention to the importance of preserving these unique, fragile ecosystems.

“We’re beginning to do more work propagating corals in our labs here,” Schmid states. “We were approached by federal agencies about the possibility of becoming a coral gene bank, so if we had a catastrophic event, we could someday be able to replant the corals.”

Next, visitors can sit down to a thrilling theatre experience in the 100-seat, state-of-the-art Whataburger 4-D Theatre. Viewers experience the film in every facet: From the wind blowing ocean spray into your hair to the sensation of bubbles and sea grass tickling your legs, viewers are truly transported into the award-winning films.

And finally, the H-E-B Caribbean Sea Shark exhibit encapsulates some of the ocean’s largest predators. The longest aquarium window in North America is framed by a Spanish galleon shipwreck surrounded by sandbar sharks, barracudas and many other species. The Texas State Aquarium is currently working with other aquariums around the country to support shark conservation, and visitors are a huge part of those efforts whether or not they realize it.

“Serving as a marine education resource is important for us,” Schmid explains. “This is a great place for families to be able to bring their kids and have a wonderful day and learn about the marine world. However, now simply coming here becomes a conservation activity. Recently, we began making grants available to researchers and scientists working on species important to the gulf and the Caribbean. So, by someone buying an admission ticket or purchasing something to eat or something at the gift shop, they’re helping us run the aquarium, but they’re also contributing to helping save species out in the wild. Just by coming to the aquarium, this becomes a wildlife conservation effort that they can be proud of.”

The Texas State Aquarium believes the Caribbean Journey expansion will greatly increase traffic and, therefore, significantly impact the economics of the city. “It’s not why we built it, and it wasn’t our mission, but this does drive a lot of tourism and traffic in our region,” Schmid says. “Each year, we do a study of our annual economic impact. This expansion will bring in close to $70 million of economic activity to our city every year. This project alone created jobs for 70 to 80 people at the aquarium. We see about 60-70,000 kids a year, and we project that will increase to 100,000 students within the next few years.”

The Texas State Aquarium is thrilled to have opened its doors May 13 for visitors to take a Caribbean Journey right here in South Texas. With the Caribbean Sea strongly tied culturally, biogeographically and historically to the Gulf of Mexico and Texas, citizens and visitors of Corpus Christi can see a spectacular new sea while feeling good about doing their part in protecting and conserving important species. This was a huge, inspiring endeavor by the Texas State Aquarium that will result in enriching outcomes for the city, its residents and beyond.

For more information, visit the Texas State Aquarium online at www.texasstateaquarium.org.