The Man Behind the Mulch: Meet Landscape Specialist Keith Bethel

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From the backwash basins in the very bottom of the building, to the tippity-top of the tall steeple on top of the observation deck, Keith Bethel knows the Aquarium from side to side, top to bottom. The twenty-five year staff member is technically titled Landscape Specialist, but he’s more like the Aquarium’s own Renaissance man. From parking issues, to sanitation stations, electricity and wiring, exhibit building – you name it and he’s had a hand in it.

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Bethel pulling errant weeds out of his pristine landscaping.

Though a native Corpus Christian, Bethel lived in Hawaii as a young adult and worked in the landscaping industry, thus giving him the edge he needed 25 years ago to land his current position.

“I was somewhat knowledgeable about tropical plants and our climate here and what works here,” says Bethel.

Bethel says he was largely tasked with making choices regarding planting, soil, landscaping the front, back, and individual exhibit areas all around the aquarium – a somewhat daunting task for a young man. But Bethel knew exactly where to find answers and inspiration; they were right across the bridge.

“I would go and cruise down Ocean Drive and check out what was thriving and doing well in their yards, then take that knowledge back to the Aquarium. We have the same kind of exposure they do and it translates well,” Bethel explained.

But Bethel’s knowledge and ingenuity doesn’t just stop at plants and landscaping. As a master falconer, he is extremely well-versed on bird care, specifically raptors.

From a very young age, Bethel said he developed a fascination with birds. 

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Bethel poses with a hawk behind the Aquarium. 

“From hummingbirds to condors, you name it; I think they’re all amazing creatures,” says Bethel, who used to spend hours of his childhood researching different bird species in the Corpus Christi Library’s encyclopedia collection. After wearing out the more general books, Bethel looked for other options and discovered one single volume concerning falconry, and that was it – the sport flew away with him.

“It is defined as ‘the art of using trained raptors to hunt,’ and is a sport that’s been around for thousands of years,” Bethel says. “There’s such a rich history behind it. Back even before the Medieval period.”

Bethel is very fond of his two peregrine falcons, Mamba, a female, and Colt, a male or tiercel. He says that working at the Aquarium over the years has afforded him great opportunities to learn more about birds of prey.

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A master falconer, Bethel is pictured here hunting with one of his two falcons.

“I’m grateful for a lot of opportunities I’ve gotten working here. I’m thankful also for the stability the Aquarium has provided me and my family – my kids grew up in the halls here and now so will my grandkids,” Bethel says with a smile. His daughter Sarah is part of the Aquarium’s Guest Services staff and recently had a baby boy.

Pride indeed runs deep at the Aquarium for Keith Bethel. From creating and maintaining our award-winning grounds, to helping with various tasks in every department, and even helping to transport animals, there truly is so much to learn about the man behind the mulch.

Shark Week Kickoff Party

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What’s gray and white and JAWSome all over? Our Shark Week Kickoff Party!! Join us Friday, July 3 from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. for a shark-filled shindig unlike any other in CC – we’ll have a scavenger hunt with prizes, a photo area feat. Charlotte, our 20-foot long inflatable shark, face painting, educational activities, and giveaways all day long! Come take a bite out of Shark Week at the Texas State Aquarium!

Saving Sharks: A Great White Encounter

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20030523a-dscn0132It’s either at the very top of your bucket list, or the number one thing you would never, ever dare to do: Swim with great white sharks.  

Here at the Texas State Aquarium, we’ve got some pretty brave souls. We have those who dive with the sand tiger sharks in our Islands of Steel exhibit; those who help give our 400-lb alligator Bo a physical, and even those work every day with our raptors, or birds of prey. But one of the bravest is Suraida Nanez-James, our manager of distance learning and outreach, who not only studied and helped to identify great whites; she cage dived with them, too.

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Nanez-James is pictured wrestling bait back from a great white.

Back in the summer of 2003, Nanez-James was working on earning her undergraduate degree in Marine Fisheries at TAMUG and scored the opportunity to work for six weeks as a research intern for the now-defunct White Shark Trust Organization in Gansbaai, South Africa, A.K.A. the great white capital of the world.

Nanez-James and the rest of the crew were most interested in tracking demographic information of great whites in the area, i.e., recording data based on sex, length, and distinguishing marks.

“A big part of it was trying to get them to surface for us,” says Nanez-James, “Ideally, we were trying to study and ID their dorsal fins.” 20030606d-dscn0028

Research leader Michael Scholl called the process “finprinting,” and Nanez-James says it was a tad harder than it sounds.

After going about ten miles out in a rather pint-sized boat (cue Jaws quotes), their nine hour day began.

“We had to chum the water, and then drop bait, trying to get them close to the boat and to breach the water,” Nanez-James explains.

She said the task was made more difficult because the team didn’t want the sharks actually biting the buoys attached to the bait, or eating all of the bait. The object was not to feed the legendary creatures, but to lure them up to get photos for data purposes.

Nanez-James says it’s an experience she will never forget.

20030601b-dscn0139“I wasn’t scared of them, but let me tell you; it definitely gives you a healthy respect for them as predators. It was amazing to be able to get that close to them and just be aware of their grace and agility,” she says with awe. “Not only are they incredibly fast and agile for their size, they are super smart, too. They would learn where we were going to drop the bait and anticipate it before we even did it.”

A dearth of important information was recovered from the project, helping to support great white conservation efforts and also data in general.

“There’s just so much we don’t know about them – their migration patterns, where they breed, when and why they travel and why they travel so far,” Nanez-James says of the species.

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Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Nanez-James and organizations like OCEARCH, Discovery’s Shark Week, and the shark tagging work done by Greg Stunz of the Harte Research Institute, we now know so much more and are learning every day about the wide world of sharks. Such research allows us to properly educate others about the oceans’ apex predators and also to learn how we can help conserve them for future generations and healthier oceans to come. 

Melissa Gaskill Book Signing Event

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Please join us Friday, June 26 from noon – 2 p.m. for a signing event of Melissa Gaskill’s “A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles”! The author will be on hand to discuss and sign her wonderful book that will also be for sale in the Aquarium’s Gift Shop. If you have your own copy, feel free to bring it along! 

“In A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles, a scientist, a conservationist, and a journalist have come together to provide a guide to the places where people can view sea turtles and participate in authentic conservation projects.

Covering five continents and including the South Pacific and Caribbean, the authors direct readers to the parks, reserves, and research sites where they can responsibly observe turtles in the wild, especially nesting beaches where people can see female sea turtles lay eggs and hatchlings make their harrowing journey from nest to sea. Options for on-site lodging and other amenities are included, if available, as well as details of other nearby attractions that travelers may wish to include in their itineraries.”

For more information about the book, please visit: http://www.tamupress.com/product/Worldwide-Travel-Guide-to-Sea-Turtles,7876.aspx

For information about the event, please contact Andrea Bolt at 361-881-1225 or email at abolt@txstateaq.org. 

Make Your World Oceans Day Clean & Green!

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From World Ocean’s Day, to events like Party for the Planet and Green Halloween; we know we spout big ideals about conservation, eco-friendliness, and recycling. As we focus on this year’s World Oceans Day theme of “healthy oceans, healthy planet” and reducing marine debris, we’d like to tell you about our own eco-friendliness and maybe even inspire you to take home more than just memories and souvenirs from the Aquarium!

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Xeriscaped landscape with crushed granite, instead of soil

From our Xeriscape landscaping and multiple recycling stations, to even the things that you don’t see – like our water filtration/cycling system and the solar panels on our roof – the Texas State Aquarium is happy to assure you that not only do we talk the talk, we also walk the walk when it comes to doing our part to keep the planet healthy.

Check out the ways in which your Aquarium stays clean and green!

Restrooms: Installed in our upstairs restroom are Zurn Dual Flush systems. These systems are extremely water efficient and have two options: flush the handle up for liquid waste and flushing down for solid waste, providing just the right amount of water to handle the waste.

The urinals in our lobby restrooms are waterless, thus also contributing to our facility’s water conservation efforts.

Waste Recycling: Nearly every single waste container at the Aquarium is broken up into plastic and/or recyclable waste receptacles. Upstairs and spread around the premises, we also have designated disposal areas for cans, paper, plastics, and even bottle screw tops and batteries. 

Outdoor recycling center

Outdoor recycling center

Seawater usage and recycling: One of the many perks of being located right on the incredible Corpus Christi bay front is our direct access to the bay’s seawater. Instead of filling our exhibits with tap water, treating it, and then adding massive amounts of salt to it in order to make it a suitable habitat for marine life, the Aquarium pipes in water from the bay, filters it multiple times, while also treating it for impurities and chemicals, and then pipes that water into our exhibits. This practice not only saves huge amounts of time and money, but also massive quantities of freshwater.

Additionally, the Aquarium will change the water in our exhibits from time to time. The very same water that is piped in is treated, filtered, processed, and sent back out into the bay.

LED Lighting: At the Aquarium, we employ LED lighting all over the facility. As opposed to incandescent bulbs or compact fluorescents, LEDs produce light by using light emitting diodes – a much more efficient use of energy than traditional sources.

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Utensils made from plant starch

Xeriscape landscaping: One of the first things you notice about the Aquarium is the lush, beautiful grounds. Palm trees, tropical flowers, manicured lawns, and more. The one thing you won’t find are lot of flower beds or mulch, as the Aquarium utilizes Xeriscape landscaping wherever possible on our premises. Xeriscaping is a landscaping or gardening practice that vastly reduces and sometimes eliminates the need for supplemental watering. Xeriscaped grounds use up to two-thirds less water than traditional lawn landscapes and also help support drought-resistant plant life local to the region, giving that true Coastal Bend flora experience. 

Utensils: Not only can you enjoy the delicious food from our Pepsi Shoreline Grill and Café Aqua, you can feel good about eating it, too! The utensils we supply at our restaurant facilities are from an eco-friendly and green company called Eco Products, and our spoons, forks, and knives are all made out of plant starch. The cutlery is made from 70% renewable materials, thus helping to reduce the consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels required to make conventional plastic cutlery.

Solar Panels: The rooftop of the Aquarium not only provides stunning view of the USS Lexington, North Beach, and Corpus Christi Bay, but also an array of sustainable solar energy panels. Solar power cells convert sunlight into electricity, using the energy of photons to create an electrical current.

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Solar panels on roof

Over the past few decades, scientists studied how to harness the sun’s energy with more efficiency to do the work of non-renewable fuels – without pollution, noise or radiation, and not subject to economic issues that can cause costs to fluctuate.

Keurig K-Cup Recycling: If you’ve been up to the third floor of the Aquarium, you’ll know that the majority of the space is dedicated to offices, and though the Aquarium may not look like just any other office building – we still thoroughly enjoy (and need) our coffee. Keurig coffee brewers are very conducive to office environments, allowing each individual to brew his or her very own custom cup of coffee, however, the issue comes in disposing of the Keurig K-Cups. As more K-Cup recycling programs have become available, the Aquarium has decided to utilize the Keurig Grounds to Grow On K-Cup pod recycling program as another one of our green efforts.

Grounds to Grown On simply requires participants to purchase a K-Cup recovery bin that will act as both a disposal receptacle and as the mailing container to ship gathered K-Cups back to the organization, where they will use leftover coffee grounds in compost and recycle the plastic parts of the K-Cup.

Green Audit: We’re also pledging to conduct a green audit this summer, seeking and implementing every additional means we can to reduce energy and plastic waste, including marine debris. While Texas State Aquarium has long facilitated Texas General Land Office Adopt-A-Beach cleanups on North Beach, this year we’re implementing a comprehensive marine debris plan that will coordinate Aquarium staff, AquaTeens, and community volunteers for at least ten cleanups at North Beach and Packery Channel sites.

Together, we can move/remove mountains – mountains of plastic that harm wildlife, and ultimately ourselves – in the world’s ocean. Please join us in action, small and simple or large and grand on World Oceans Day and beyond.

World Turtle Day!

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Walker, our Texas tortoise

Walker, our Texas tortoise

It’s only fitting that we celebrate one of the world’s oldest creatures with its own designated day. That’s right, the sea turtles you can glimpse while catching the sunset in Port A, the box turtle you have as a pet, and the famous Galapagos Islands tortoises (who fittingly look like living fossils) have been around for a whopping 200 million years.

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To honor and promote awareness on behalf of these wonderful animals, the American Tortoise Rescue founded World Turtle Day in 2000. The organization also gathered a bunch of helpful tips and advice on how YOU can do your part and help to save turtles and tortoises so that they can be around for another 200 million years! 

  • If you’re interested in obtaining a pet turtle, do your research on different species and their needs, then purchase the animal from a reputable store, breeder, or shelter. DO NOT TAKE A WILD TURTLE FOR A PET.
  • Do not release a pet turtle into the wild if you find yourself unable or unwilling to care for it. Turtles kept as pets may not have the important nutrients they need to survive cold winters. In addition, pet turtles may not be native to your area and should not interbreed with wild turtles.
  • Don’t remove turtles or tortoises from the wild unless they appear sick or injured.
  • If a tortoise is crossing a busy street, pick it up and take it in the same direction it was going – if you try to make it go back, it will turn right around again.
  • Do your part to keep beaches and other natural turtle and tortoise habitats free and clean of trash.
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Danni, our Red-footed tortoise

Sadly, many of the turtle and tortoise species here at the Aquarium are considered by the IUCN as near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. These species include all of our sea turtles – green, Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, loggerhead – as well as our Diamondback terrapin, Red-footed tortoise, ornate box turtle, and gopher tortoise. 

Help us bring awareness to the plight of these incredible creatures by visiting the Aquarium to learn more about them, WEAR GREEN, and please consider donating to organizations like ours that are committed to conserving species!

Happy World Turtle Day!

Texas State Aquarium Saddened Loss of Fish Species

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The Texas State Aquarium is saddened to report the loss of approximately 400 marine fish.  These fish inhabited several large habitats, including the Islands of Steel exhibit and the Flower Gardens exhibit. In an attempt to control a particularly difficult parasite that had proven resistant to other treatments, staff administered a different, commonly used drug. The fish in the affected exhibits had an adverse reaction to the medication. Staff members worked diligently throughout the night to save as much of the collection as possible, but considerable losses were sustained.

The majority of the Aquarium’s animal collection was not impacted. The Living Shores gallery, Nearshore gallery, Amazon, and Floating Phantoms, as well as a number of smaller exhibits, were not affected. None of the freshwater aquariums, and none of the touch tanks were impacted. In addition, none of the outdoor exhibits such as Tortuga Cay and Texas Trails were affected.  The loss represents about 13 percent of the Aquarium’s overall collection.

As a standard precaution, staff had tested the treatment on an individual smaller exhibit with no adverse reaction prior to administering it into the larger exhibit.

The Aquarium’s first priority is to focus on stabilizing the water in the affected exhibits. The Aquarium has sent water samples from affected exhibits to testing laboratories in hopes of a clear explanation for what caused the adverse reaction.

“This is a very sad day at the Texas State Aquarium,” remarked Aquarium Chief Marketing Officer Richard E. Glover, Jr. “We are working diligently to find out what caused the adverse reaction, and we will keep the public informed with any updates.”

Shark Eggs > Easter Eggs

Shark Eggs > Easter Eggs Blog Post
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Our eggs are cooler than the Easter kind…

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Bamboo shark eggs in Shark Touch

shark eggsshark eggsThe semi creepy-looking brown, ovular pods look more like they come from outer space than from the body of a carpet shark. While there’s much to be said of the similarities between the depths of space and the world’s oceans, shark eggs and alien eggs may have more in common than we might ever know…but here’s what we can tell you about shark eggs:

Of the world’s approximately 400 species of sharks, around 40% of them are oviparous, or egg laying animals. The spiral and augur-shaped eggs laid by carpet sharks, also called “mermaid’s pouches,”  come from the Aquarium’s Horned Sharks, Brown-banded Bamboo Sharks, and our White-spotted Bamboo Sharks.

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Toothless, a juvenile brown-banded bamboo shark in Shark Touch

Aquarist Rafael Calderon says that the sharks maintain a regular egg laying cycle, with the Horned Sharks laying around 4-6 eggs per year, while the bamboo sharks do so almost monthly.  Horned Shark embryos take around 6-10 months to develop, depending on water temperature. Upon hatching, the young pups will often measure around 5.9 – 6.3 inches in length.

In oviparous shark species, the young get their nourishment from a yolk sac. They may take several months to hatch. In some species, the eggs stay inside the female for a period of time before they are laid, so that the young have a chance to develop more fully and spend less time in the vulnerable, immobile egg cases before they hatch. 

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Egg area in Shark Touch exhibit

Egg cases are usually covered with adhesive fibers that adhere to substrate like corals or seaweed, or the ocean’s bottom, Calderon explains. “Yeah, they may look kind of gross and have a fibrous substance on them, but it’s a good thing. In the wild, predators will go after the eggs, but if they’re attached to something, they definitely are harder to see.”

Calderon says the carpet sharks, all West Coast natives, are known for being a gentle, docile species.

“They’re mostly nocturnal, and they even like to ‘cuddle’ when they sleep,” he says, “They kind of dog pile onto one another. It’s cute.”

Come visit our bamboo sharks in our outdoor Shark Touch exhibit, and our Horned Sharks in our Islands of Steel exhibit!

 

 

 

Talk With a Trainer: WildFlight Senior Bird & Mammal Trainer Andrea

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Senior Trainer Andrea poses with Zeppo, the Aquarium’s Green-Winged Macaw. The two redheads were fast friends.

Andrea was just 6 years old when her grandpa took her to see a presentation in London about orca whales; the length of the show was the length of time it took to capture the young girl’s heart – hook, line, and sinker. 

Ever since that fateful excursion, Andrea knew that working with animals would be a large part of her future. Now in her early thirties and holding a bachelor’s degree in Marine Sciences from the University of Maine and a master’s degree  in Marine Fishery Sciences from Scotland’s University of Aberdeen (not to mention studying abroad in Australia), she’s been a dolphin trainer at a marine park in Turkey, worked with cetaceans in Curacao, and also done animal work in Germany and Austria.

Still not impressed?

“I also train dogs and wolves on the side,” Andrea mentions with a smile.

Additionally, she teaches behavioral courses online at the Animal Behavior Institute. “I just love teaching – specifically animal psychology and emotions – it’s fun and absolutely fascinating.”

Andrea decided to pay Texas an extended visit after her world travels for the opportunity to work with raptors, namely the owls and hawks that call the Aquarium home. It’s Andrea’s first time working with the birds of prey, helping to round out her career goal of working with as wide a variety of animal species as possible. Andy2

Part of being an animal trainer at the Aquarium is training animals to learn and then execute behaviors.  The very technical science requires patience, determination, and a deep understanding of animal psychology and emotions. According to Andrea, building trust with raptors can often be a strenuous endeavor.

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Here, Andrea “asks” a behavior of Zeppo – and he answers by successfully displaying his plumage.

“It’s definitely different than say, working with a parrot. A parrot will show you affection and build a relationship with you,” she explains, “Oftentimes raptors are a bit wilder. They will learn and then do behaviors, but there’s an evident difference in temperaments.” 

And there’s not much more rewarding than seeing a taught behavior learned and then performed by an animal, Andrea says. For example, having an animal volunteer or present a certain part of its body for veterinary technicians to perform a blood draw is a great accomplishment, making the task easier and less stressful on both the animals and humans involved.

Teaching WildFlight star Sonora, a white-nosed coati, to rope climb upside-down was a proud training moment for Andrea.

“I had to get her used to the rope first, then we worked on her climbing at a low level. Next we hung it higher and I taught her to lift herself up and attach her paws (coati’s ankles rotate 180 degrees, making them excellent climbers) and she did great,” Andrea explained.

 The trainer said down the road she’d love to work as a behavioral curator and help to train trainers.

“I love teaching, whether that’s teaching animals or educating others about animals,” she said.

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Andrea positively encourages and rewards Zeppo’s great behavior by feeding him part of his daily diet.

And for the youngsters out there inspired by Andrea and wanting to work in her profession: she advocates being extremely dedicated in school, especially in the sciences.

“Getting internships and volunteering is crucial – get experience wherever and however you can,” she says, “The field of animal husbandry is very competitive, so any edge you have, be it working at PetSmart or volunteering at a local animal shelter or wildlife refuge, it all counts.”

Come visit Andrea at our daily WildFlight presentations at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and see her in action!