Making a Difference: Meet ‘Diver Dennis’

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Burk shows off his “teeth,” those gathered from our Islands of Steel exhibit residents Hunter & Orion.

In any other instance, a man that carries a bag of teeth around in his pocket might be considered a little bit strange, but in the case of veteran volunteer Dennis Burk; it’s just another day at the Aquarium. hermit crab small

Burk, a 22-year volunteer, loves showing curious kids and even adults what a pearly, pointy sand tiger shark tooth looks like up close. “It’s neat for them to make the connection that these right here [pointing to the teeth in his palm] are actually the chompers that come out of Orion and Hunter,” Burk says, referring to the Aquarium’s two resident sand tiger sharks, “And most times, I let them take one home as a souvenir.”

In his professional career, Burk worked as a RN at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi- South and also at the health center’s Beeville location. Other job duties included teaching hospital education courses in crisis intervention, CPR training, and also coaching staff how to use new medical instruments. After moving to Colorado for work, Burk decided in the early nineties that it was time to come back to the Coastal Bend.

“I missed my ocean,” he says. “I was a 35-year Divemaster and when I moved back and saw the Aquarium opening. I jumped at the opportunity to become a volunteer.”

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Burk gestures to the size of the corals in our Flower Gardens exhibit and how they correlate to those he’s seen out in the ocean.

Burk is passionate about diving, a hobby he took up while in Guam serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

“The water was crystal clear and there were these huge blue starfish that were just so cool,” Burk remembers.

Since, Burk has dived all over the Gulf, as well as the Caribbean. The unique sponges found diving the waters of the Cayman Islands are one of his favorite sights, and now so are many of the fish in exhibits at the Aquarium. Burk dives in the Aquarium’s Flower Gardens and Islands of Steel habitats, befriending many a finned inhabitant. While he loves diving, Burk says it’s interacting with Aquarium visitors that “pays all the bills.”

“I’m a certain personality, you know? And teaching is a large part of my background. So not only do I enjoy talking to people, I also love to inform them, and to teach them about this amazing world, these animals around them.”

Burk started out as  what’s referred to as a “brown apron,” then took the proper volunteer training courses to become a top-tier “blue vest” volunteer, a place of honor that requires the wearer to be able to speak at length about all areas of the Aquarium.

Burk says his passion for animals, diving, and teaching are all fulfilled in his position as a volunteer at the Aquarium, a fact he’s truly thankful for. 

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One of Burk’s many hobbies includes kayak surfing.

“This place is not only great for the community and all the economic benefits it provides locally, but the people here are great. I’ve met a lot of staff and had a lot of fun here and I just love that I’m a piece of all that, I’m a part of this place,” he states.

Burk has enough anecdotes and stories concerning late night banquets, visitor questions, and diving adventures to fill the Islands of Steel exhibit he loves so much, but there’s one that stands out in his memory.

“There was a mother and her three little daughters visiting one day, years ago, and I was getting ready to dive in Islands,” he recalls. “So I went out and introduced myself to them and told them that soon I’d be diving in there. And they were hysterical! They said, ‘In THERE?! With the shark?!’ And I told them to stay and watch!”

Burk proceeded to strap on all his dive gear and enter the water, when he saw all three girls with their six hands on the acrylic, waving like mad and in awe that he was swimming with a shark. He began cleaning and also picking up ejected shark teeth he found on the bottom of the exhibit, when he noticed the oldest child trying to get his attention. He realized she was pointing to a large tooth he had missed, so he swam over, picked it up and held his palm against the acrylic so they could all get a good look.

“Their eyes were so wide, it was so cute,” says Burk.

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Burk also volunteers at the Padre Island National Seashore, where he has helped satellite tag sea turtles and assist in releasing rehabilitated turtles back into the wild.

Burk finished his dive and then went back out to the Islands of Steel viewing area, where his rapt audience met him with squeals of awe and delight. 

“They were hugging my legs and told me they were glad I was okay,” Burk says with a laugh, “So then, I pulled that tooth, the one the little girl had spotted, and showed it to them. They inspected it and touched it, and then I asked her if she wanted to take it home with her – she was beyond excited!”

Burk said they all hugged him, and the mother thanked him for such a great visit.

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Being a “seahog” is a sentiment Burk takes to heart.

“They walked away with a great visit, and me, I still think about them to this day. That’s the reason why I’ve been doing this for so long. It truly never gets old.”

 

Meet ‘Diver Dennis’ every Thursday when he dives in our Islands of Steel and Flower Gardens exhibits!

 

Totally Touchable: 16 Animals You Can See and Feel at the Aquarium

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Kid with urchinAt the Texas State Aquarium, we’re all about providing extrasensory experiences to excite and engage visitors with animals and nature. It’s been scientifically proven that people, especially children, tend to feel more passionately for and care about things they can see and interact with up close and personal – that’s why we foster compassion, education, and conservation via the ability to touch and feel certain animals.

We hope the thrill of petting a shark’s tough skin, feeling the tingling tube feet of a sea star, and holding a live conch will create lasting memories in your child’s mind for years to come, and also inspire them to care about our world’s oceans and the inhabitants that swim, splash, and scuttle beneath their waves.

Below is a list of the many totally touchable animals you can encounter at the Texas State Aquarium:

 

  1. Hermit crabhermit crab small

Found in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico, the striped hermit crabs in our Living Shores touch pool area are only hermit-like as a defense mechanism, and because as they grow, they have to change shells, temporarily exposing their soft, vulnerable bodies to the world. The striped hermit’s body and legs are dark green or brown, streaked with white. Adult crabs often occupy shells of over 10 cm. (4 in.) in length.

 

  1. Horseshoe crab

Did you know we have an animal older than the dinosaurs that you can actually touch?! That’s right; the hard-shelled, blue-blooded horseshoe crab has been scuttling around the earth for over 300 million years! Though with their hard exoskeletons, ten legs, nine eyes, and long tails called telsons, they seem to look more like they come from outer space than earth. These can be found in our Living Shores touch pool area.slipper lobster sm

 

  1. Slipper lobster

You might notice that the slipper lobster seems to be lacking a very crucial part of lobster anatomy – where are its pinchers? Don’t worry; this crafty crustacean, found in our Living Shores touch pool area, comes equipped with multiple ways to fend off predators. This lobster has one of the toughest carapaces under the sea, and it also has amazing camouflage capabilities, as well as the ability to climb and cling to surrounding landscape to escape!

 

  1. Sea urchin

Also found in our Living Shores touch pool area, the spindly spindles of the pencil and short spined urchins in our touch pool area only look menacing – there’s nothing to fear! Urchins can be covered with hundreds of these spines and can range in color from white to purple to blue and even red. pin cushion urchin small

 

  1. Sea star

The Bahama, or red cushion, sea star found in our Living Shores touch pool area is the largest sea star found in its range, which stretches from the Caribbean Sea to the western Atlantic Ocean. The upper surface of this oceanic omnivore is hard and covered with blunt spines, but pick one up, and you’ll feel its tube feet moving against your hand.

 

  1. Southern Ray smallSouthern stingray

These flat, diamond-shaped rays are usually a stone gray or muddle olive color and the large adults are famously seen in the waters off the Cayman Islands swimming with visitors. Not only can you touch them in Stingray Lagoon, you can also see larger southern stingrays in our Islands of Steel and Flower Gardens exhibits.

 

  1. Cownose stingray

The distinctive w-shaped nose of the cownose ray looks just like that of its bovine namesake. These rays swim in multiple exhibits at the Aquarium and are among those that can be touched at Stingray Lagoon. Like most rays, cownoses have crushing plates they use to eat clams and oysters. And though they can use their barbs for defense in the wild, we trim the barbs of all the stingrays at the Texas State Aquarium. They’re made of keratin, just like our hair and fingernails, so the procedure is totally painless.

 

  1. Whitespotted bamboo shark

Just one of the three types of carpet sharks we have at the Aquarium, these benthic and banded sharks are easily identifiable by their medium and dark brown-striped bodies spotted with white dots. Visitors can get up close with them in our Saving Sharks exhibit.

 

  1. Brown banded bamboo sharkbrownbanded bamboo shark small

This small shark likes to search the sediment on the ocean bottom for prey and can also amazingly survive outside the water for extended periods of time! It can be found in the Aquarium at our Saving Sharks exhibit.

 

  1. Epaulette shark

These tan and black-spotted sharks use their fins for more than swimming – they actually walk with them! By wriggling their bodies from side to side and pushing with their paired fins, they can effectively walk across the bottom of the ocean and their Saving Sharks exhibit.

 

  1. Horn shark

Recognizable by its short, blunt head, ridges over its eyes, two high dorsal fins, and brown coloration with a plethora of small, dark spots, the horn shark can be found slowly swimming inside the touch pool area inside Saving Sharks.

 

  1. Sea cucumbersea cucumber sm

Named after its resemblance to the common green vegetable, sea cucumbers are important parts of marine ecosystems as they help recycle nutrients, breaking down detritus and other organic matter after which bacteria can continue the degradation process. They can be found in our Living Shores touch pool area.

 

  1. Horse conch

The largest gastropod in American waters, the horse conch is also one of the largest sea snails in the world. The animal can retract its bright orange soft parts into its shell and seal itself off from predators. Touch one in our touch area in our Living Shores exhibit!

 

  1. Common spider crab

Also known as a decorator crab due to its tendency to camouflage itself with algae and debris, the spider crab is a long-legged and slow-moving creature that can be found from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico in brackish, salty waters. At the Aquarium, you can catch this crustacean in our Living Shores touch pool.Spider crab sm

 

  1. Milk conch

This iconic conical conch can be found burrowing into sandy ocean floors all throughout the gulf and the Caribbean. The inside of the shell is creamy in color, and the animal itself is a greenish color with large eyestalks. When disturbed, it will retreat into its shell and close it using the operculum. Get up close in our Living Shores touch pool!

 

  1. Chiton smChitons

Chitons are marine mollusks that look more like fossils than living animals. They dwell on hard surfaces such as on or under rocks or in crevices and can be found all across the world’s oceans, as well as in our Living Shores touch pool area. They have plates that overlap and give them that tough, tank-like appearance similar to the body of a cockroach. Chitons creep slowly along surfaces thanks to a muscular foot – they’ve been doing so for close to 400 million years.

 

Don’t fear the fin: Saving Sharks exhibit shows misunderstood fish need our help, not our fear

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Justifying not only the existence, but the conservation of Jaws is a hard license plate to swallow for many ocean-loving humans. Not everyone feels pity for the ocean’s apex predators, but the fact is that sharks are crucial to the health of our world’s oceans and their declining populations need our help now more than ever. Helping to illustrate the various ways in which we can and are conserving shark species is Saving Sharks, the newest exhibit brought to you by thUntitled-1-01e Texas State Aquarium, OCEARCH, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Due to unsustainable fishing practices, habitat alteration, climate change, and finning, shark populations have declined between 70 and 90 percent in recent years, leaving many of them swimming toward the endangered species list. Humans, unfortunately, have had a heavy hand in getting them there. The good news is, we can help turn their grim fate around. Passing on all shark products, consuming only sustainable fish, fishing responsibly, and learning more about your local shark populations are all things you can do to make the oceans safer for sharks – which makes it safer for us all.

Saving Sharks aims to support these conservation practices by furthering learning about these often misunderstood predators using facts and educational efforts to combat such ideologies. A section on shark biology helps accomplish this by exhibiting a shark’s cartilaginous skeleton, as well as skin, scales, and teeth samples from a number of different species.

ToothlessDesigned to capture the hearts and minds of would-be conservationists and lifelong shark fans, alike, Saving Sharks is a fun, interactive, and informative exhibit. Featuring a live touch tank area where visitors can see and feel whitespotted bamboo, horn, and epaulette sharks, track great whites in real time, and even stand inside a life-sized underwater diving cage, it’s a shark showcase that’s sure to excite and engage every member of the family!

The king of the shark world, the great white, is well represented throughout the exhibit, especially where OCEARCH is concerned. OCEARCH is a non-profit organization and leader in open source data collection and research concerning great whites and other apex predators.

Aboard the OCEARCH research vessel, the team travels the world and collects data including reproductive conditions of females, body measurements for comparative studies around the world, muscle biopsies to identify key life stages, and more. Led by founding chairman and expedition leader Chris Fischer, OCEARCH is able to bring live shark tracking straight to your fingertips via the Internet and their Global Shark Tracker. Follow majestic creatures such as Katherine, the 14-foot great white who has swum over 15,000 miles in the two years since she was tagged, or cruise alongside Sam Houston, the 10-foot long tiger shark tagged off the coast of Port Aransas last summer. OCEARCH plays a critical role in providing scientific information necessary in tracking and measuring shark species across the globe, helping to lead and better steer conservation efforts. SandTigerSharks062515a

Some of the first identified sharks that OCEARCH ever tracked were tagged by Corpus Christi’s own Dr. Greg Stunz of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Stunz was one of the first grantees to benefit from the Texas State Aquarium’s Wildlife Care, Conservation, and Research Fund. Stunz’s main project focus was to gain a better understanding of shark migration patterns in the Gulf of Mexico. We’re excited that our funding could positively affect members of the local Corpus Christi community, both human and otherwise.

Take a dive into the underwater world of Saving Sharks this October and together, we can join fins and work to conserve these beautiful and fascinating fish!

Texas State Aquarium and Valero Make Major Campaign Caribbean Announcement

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Half-million dollar contribution from Valero aids fundraising effort for Aquarium’s Caribbean Journey expansionCarribbean Campaign Logo Color FINAL

 September 4, 2014

CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS – The Texas State Aquarium is excited to announce another significant gift for Campaign Caribbean, the Aquarium’s capital campaign which will fund the largest expansion in its 24-year history. Today, continued partner Valero announced a generous $500,000 gift to Campaign Caribbean, which surpassed the crucial midway point of achieving its $50 million goal earlier this year and has a groundbreaking scheduled for late this year.

The major gift will sponsor the new entryway into the Caribbean Journey experience, introducing guests to the sights, sounds, and vibrant wildlife of the Western Caribbean. “For more than three decades, Valero has been committed to the Coastal Bend Region through the jobs we create and the contributions we invest in our community,” said Dennis Payne, Vice President and General Manager, Valero Corpus Christi Refineries. “Today’s gift for the Texas State Aquarium is another demonstration of our commitment to Corpus Christi, especially causes that focus on education and environmental sustainability. It’s Valero’s hope that this new entryway will usher in a wave of excitement for tourists, residents, and businesses across the state.”

Texas State Aquarium President & CEO Tom Schmid commented, “Since the opening of the Aquarium almost 25 years ago, Valero has been a great partner and great patron. Valero has been consistently generous and helped us advance our mission. This latest investment affirms their commitment to environmental education, wildlife conservation, and economic development in this community, and throughout Texas.”

The $50 million Caribbean Journey addition – which completes the final two phases of the Aquarium’s original master plan – will transform the Texas State Aquarium from a leading regional aquarium to one of the top aquariums in the nation.

In late 2012, the Texas State Aquarium launched the leadership phase of Campaign Caribbean, a capital campaign to raise the necessary funds for construction of the Caribbean Journey wing. At 65,000 square feet, the new Caribbean Journey wing will be significantly larger than the original Gulf of Mexico exhibit building.  “The new wing will be 50 percent larger, however, in terms of indoor exhibit space. It will more than double what we currently have,” said Aquarium President & CEO Tom Schmid.  “This is going to be a multi-level, highly immersive, state-of-the-art experience.”

Visit texasstateaquarium.org/caribbean to take the Caribbean Journey.

 

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Texas State Aquarium: Connecting people with nature and inspiring conservation of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums

and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

 

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Texas State Aquarium Announces Monumental Expansion

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Campaign Caribbean - See a New Sea

H-E-B contribution of $3 million leads way in effort for

Caribbean Journey to More Than Double Size of Aquarium

 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS – The Texas State Aquarium is excited to announce today the largest expansion in its 24 year history. Bringing the sights, sounds, and vibrant wildlife of the Western Caribbean to the shores of Corpus Christi, this $50,000,000 Caribbean Journey addition – which completes the final two phases of the Aquarium’s original master plan – will transform the Texas State Aquarium from a leading regional aquarium to one of the one of the top aquariums in the nation. 

 

In late 2012, the Texas State Aquarium launched the leadership phase of Campaign Caribbean, a capital campaign to raise the necessary funds for construction of the Caribbean Journey wing. Today, continued partner H-E-B announced a lead gift of $3 million to Campaign Caribbean, which has now reached the crucial midway point of the $50 million goal, enabling the Aquarium to commission final construction documents and move forward with groundbreaking scheduled for late this year.  Rob Hall, Group Vice President of H-E-B Gulf Coast Region stated, “The Texas State Aquarium is one of the most significant educational resources in our state.  H-E-B is pleased to continue our partnership with the aquarium because we believe this investment represents our passion for education and our commitment to the communities we serve.”

 

At 65,000 square feet, the new Caribbean Journey wing will be significantly larger than the original Gulf of Mexico exhibit building.  “The new wing will be 50% larger, however, in terms of indoor exhibit space, it will more than double what we currently have,” said Aquarium President & CEO Tom Schmid.  “This is going to be a multi-level, highly immersive, state-of-the-art experience.”

 

Visit www.texasstateaquarium.org/caribbean to take the Caribbean Journey.

Texas State Aquarium: Connecting people with nature and inspiring conservation of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums

and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

www.texasstateaquarium.org

Nearshore Gallery

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Nearshore

Construction on our remodeled Nearshore exhibit is coming along! This is a large piece of the fallen “driftwood” tree that will stretch across most of the new exhibit, allowing the birds to roam a larger space and perch right over your head! The newly renovated space will be open Spring 2014.