Corpus Christi – We’ve done some pretty amazing things on the Texas Bucket List over the years but there’s an adventure in Corpus Christi that ranks right up near the top. You see the Texas State Aquarium is already a great place to visit on our list but now you can do something that had my Mom and my kids all concerned, swimming with sharks!
“Probably the most successful programs we’ve launched,” said Jesse Gilbert, the president and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium. Before I was forced to swim with the fishes, I had to know how all of this came to be. Since 2003 Jesse has been part of this place and that includes the introduction of their swim with the sharks experience.
Now the Texas State Aquarium didn’t build its reputation on this unique experience but rather the years of fun and educational programs that they’ve had since the aquarium opened in 1990. Back then the entire exhibit was dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico but today there’s a boatload more thanks to the recent Caribbean Ocean addition. “We doubled the size of the aquarium in 2017 when it opened, and from there, we went to the wildlife rescue center. So that pattern has just continued to go,” explained Jesse.
Seeing these sizable exhibits is quite exhilarating but then you realize, someone has to take care of all these fish. “There’s about 70 individuals alone that make sure that the animals are safe, the water’s good to go, the bay is in good shape. We use natural seawater from Corpus Christi Bay, and so we have to make sure that the Bay’s doing well. So there’s a lot of data that’s collected and a lot of operations that go on around the clock,” explained Jesse.
“My whole life. I have wanted to work with Marine animals, specifically sharks,” stated Jordan Campbell, an instructor here at the aquarium. Jordan took me on a behind the scenes tour of the Texas State Aquarium and that’s when you really get a scope of how big this ocean operation is.
“It’s like a small city. We have to generate our own power. When we have hurricanes and freezes, we have to make our own water, we have our own hospital for the animals, we have our own commissaries and kitchens. And so it’s really kind of a neat way to take people behind the scenes and they can see all the different facets of what it takes to operate an organization with us,” said Jesse.
Jordan then took me to the Islands of Steel exhibit, their largest exhibit that mimics just what we would see in the Gulf of Mexico. “So we’ve got some larger shark species. We have two nurse sharks.Their names are Luna and Soul. We’ve got a few larger game fish in here as well, we’ve got some crevalle jacks, we have a sheepshead, a northern red snapper, we have some tarpon. We have one barracuda kind of right there in the middle. And then of course we have Tiki who’s our loggerhead sea turtle,” explained Jordan while showing us the exhibit.Here you get to feed the fish, and they sure do go crazy for it!
Now if I can prevent myself from becoming food, we’ll be okay, so Shannon Hunt got me prepared. Shannon took me to the Caribbean Sea exhibit where I will be snorkeling with the sharks! “Yeah. There’s sharks, eels, stingrays, all kinds of really cool marine life that we’re going to get a nice close look at,” said Shannon Hunt, a staff member of the aquarium.
Fortunately, I spotted the cage I will be in. “Yes, we will be in that shark cage in just a few minutes. And when we’re in there, we’re going to be able to see our animals up really, really closely. All of the animals, the sandbar sharks, our stingrays, even our eels, aren’t shy about swimming right past the cage for an awesome view,” explained Shannon.
“Our sharks all have a nice balanced diet. It does not include any of our snorkelers or any nice, tasty snacks that you might have brought along with you today,” joked Shannon.
“So by getting up close and personal, we can remove the stigma around sharks and give people a better appreciation for the ocean. As the aquarium here, we are trying to get people to care about these animals and the quality of our ocean. And by seeing all the incredible stuff nice up and close, then you care a little bit more,” explained Shannon.
Now what I am worried about is the water being ice cold. “However, this water is right around 72 degrees Fahrenheit and that’s the optimal temperature for all of the different species in this exhibit,” said Shannon. “We’re going to get you in the water with some sharks today,” stated Cassie Gunter, a three-year employee at The Texas State Aquarium.
Cassie got me ready for the dive. Fortunately, I love snorkeling so passing the quick swimming test wasn’t a problem, the 72-degree water on the other hand was a bit chilly. The salinity of the water was surprisingly strong, keeping me more afloat than I am used to but keeping my legs up in the water was a good thing, especially when you see sharks swimming right in front of you. “The sharks here are pretty friendly, so we get in there every day with them, so they’re really used to human interaction, but we don’t touch them unless we absolutely have to, this is their home so we make sure to respect that,” explained Cassie.
Once you settle in, watching these huge animals glide gracefully in the water is exhilarating while knowing there’s a cage around you is comforting. “A lot of people are pretty surprised, I know that sharks get a bad rep in the media sometimes. Everyone’s seen Jaws and all the scary sharks, but the whole purpose of this snorkel here is so people can get up close with sharks and say, ‘Hey, that shark wasn’t so scary, maybe they’re pretty awesome and an important part of the ecosystem.’,” explained Shannon.
“There’s that wow factor of being with sharks. Sharks aren’t dangerous, we want to make sure that people understand that. And so we were trying to come up with a way that people could get in there. It was safe, but it also kind of kept this mystique about sharks,” said Jesse.
Swimming with the sharks comes highly recommended but if just visiting the aquarium is enough to float your boat, we’ll that’s well worth a stop as well. “The Texas State Aquarium has something special, the people here have something special. Everyone, as soon as you walk in the doors, they want to share what we know about the animals, about the environment, and it’s really something you have to see and experience firsthand,” expressed Jordan.
“That’s what’s so special about Texas is that Texans love the outdoors and they love their wildlife. And so it makes telling that story easier and impactful. We’re just not saying it, Texans really understand it and go out there and do it,” said Jesse.