Jesse Gilbert, CEO of the Texas State Aquarium, in Corpus Christi, hands me a hard hat as we walk toward a massive building in its final stages of construction. To our right, palm trees sway in the wind and sunlight glints off the expansive glass ceiling of the Texas State Aquarium, where visitors encounter more than 250 species of fish, reptiles, mammals, birds, and invertebrates from the Gulf and the Caribbean. “We’re the biggest aquarium in Texas,” Gilbert says. “And now what’s really incredible is you’ve got the leading coastal-wildlife rescue program in the country.”

Open to the public today, the aquarium’s new Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue is a 26,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art hospital for marine mammals and sea turtles. While the aquarium requires an admission fee, the rescue center is free of charge. (A new aviary is also part of the expansion, but to protect the birds’ recovery, this area is closed to visitors.)

Over the last twenty-plus years, the aquarium has made wildlife rescue a key part of its mission. Corpus Christi sits along a flyway that brings flocks of migrating birds each spring. Locals often bring in birds injured by wires or in hunting accidents for treatment. “We see about three or four hundred birds a year,” Gilbert says. Until now, those rescues occurred at a small off-site facility about two miles from the aquarium.

But after Hurricane Harvey, when sea turtle rescue centers along the coast were incapacitated by flooding, the organization began taking on additional marine-wildlife rescue work. “We were seeing more challenges with wildlife outside of the aquarium’s doors,” says Gilbert. In 2019, the aquarium quietly initiated a capital campaign—the new facility cost roughly $16 million—and made plans for an expansion of its rescue operations. 

And nature dictated just how much bigger they needed to be. Winter Storm Uri rolled into Texas in 2021, stunning at least 18,000 sea turtles and prompting rescue teams from South Padre to Galveston to bring them to warming centers. Sea turtles are reptiles, so their body temperature varies with the environment. In the cold, their movement slows and they can drown, a condition called cold stunning. The aquarium had the capacity to care for eight hundred cold-stunned sea turtles. It squeezed in twice that number, using emergency pop-up pools with seawater pumps. 

One of the aquarium’s major takeaways from the 2021 cold-stun event was that if the sea turtles were treated in seawater, their survival rates reached 95 percent. Out of water, only about half of them pulled through. Although the new rescue center was already in the design phase, Gilbert challenged the team to find a way to double the capacity it had treated in seawater pools. 

Then last winter, another cold snap put more animals in harm’s way. Aquarium staffers were caring for an orphaned baby dolphin while also treating about a hundred turtles in the hospital. Meanwhile, a manatee was reported on social media frequenting local seagrass beds. Manatees are newcomers to Texas, thought to be taking advantage of warming seawater and fleeing declining conditions in Florida. No one knew how it would fare in the cold. 

As the only rescue center in Texas licensed to care for birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals, “we almost had the trifecta,” Gilbert says. “And that was the moment where between the aquarium and all of the different agencies that have oversight, [we] recognized, ‘We’ve got to figure out how we can take care of this diverse group of animals at one time.’ ”

The new Wildlife Rescue Center is 26,000-square-feet.
The new wildlife rescue center is 26,000 square feet. Courtesy of Texas State Aquarium
A rendering of the Turtle Hospital.
A rendering of the center’s turtle hospital. Courtesy of Texas State Aquarium

Gilbert leads me into an open space created by the fifteen-foot-high pilings designed to protect the building from storm surges and flooding. The building can withstand category 5 hurricanes and remain self-sufficient for a week without power. But in the winter, this open space creates the capacity Gilbert aspired to find. Emergency pop-up pools like those deployed during the 2021 winter storm can support as many as three thousand sea turtles when the need arises.

Up a set of stairs, windows open onto a 180-degree view of the bay, where teal seawater gives way to blue sky. In this main lobby, workers are getting educational displays ready for the public. One is a sea turtle excluder device used by fishing boats to avoid trapping the animals. It doubles as a tunnel for kids to crawl though. A video game let visitors interact with X-rays of dolphins. Guests can pose for photos on a mockup of the back of a boat showing how healthy sea turtles are released back into the sea.  

Turning left, we enter the hospital wards. The first holds twenty barrel-size pools, which Gilbert refers to as hospital beds for the patients. The room is divided by a plexiglass wall. “What’s unique about [green sea] turtles in Texas,” explains Gilbert, “is that some of the populations have herpes. And some don’t. And we don’t want the ones that don’t have herpes to get it. So, we actually run two hospitals.” Herpes positive on one side, herpes negative on the other. 

The next room is a laboratory where staff veterinarians will test seawater chemistry and animal blood work, as well as analyze tissue samples for diseases or parasites. Windows and video monitors will allow the public to watch. We pass by a kitchen outfitted with shiny stainless-steel counters where food for the various animal diets will be prepared.

At the end of the hall, we stop at a deck above a massive pool. “This holds ninety thousand gallons,” says Gilbert. “It’s for manatees, dolphins, sharks, turtles, you name it. It’s one of the largest pools dedicated to rescue.” Windows let in natural light so animals will be able to maintain their normal sleep and wake schedules. Cranes and a massive garage door allow for the safe movement of larger animals, such as dolphins or manatees, in and out of the pool. A smaller isolation pool is available for specialized treatments.

Inside the next room, four medical staffers wearing scrubs are passing a tray through a doughnut-shaped piece of medical equipment. Gilbert says flashlights are standing in for injured animals while the staff receives training on how to use Texas’s only CT scanner dedicated to wildlife rescue. The nearly $1 million piece of equipment is a game-changer, he says. 

CT provides a three-dimensional view of both the hard and soft parts of the animal. “So let’s say a sea turtle came in that was hit by a boat. The doctors can take it straight from the CT scanner, and they’ll go right into surgery,” Gilbert says, leading me toward the next window, which opens onto an operating room.

“You’re going to let people watch surgeries?” I ask.

“One hundred percent,” he answers. A major aim of the center, and one reason it’s free, is to inspire kids to care about wildlife. Seeing animals treated and recovering from injuries could be the kind of experience that leads to a career in science or medicine.

In the next room, paint is still being rolled onto the walls, “but soon it will be the Wildlife Response Operations Center,” Gilbert says. Just like with an emergency operations center deployed during a hurricane, multiple agencies will operate the space during a wildlife-crisis event. The room is wired for redundancy of communication, backup generators, and other emergency features.

We climb another set of stairs to the top floor, a wide-open space that hasn’t yet been subdivided. Gilbert says this area will be dedicated to research by any higher-education institution that asks for the opportunity. “The door is open. We see it as an incubation center for wildlife challenges.”

It’s not a stretch to imagine how the CT scanner on the floor below could improve care for injured dolphins and sea turtles. What else might Texas scientists learn about the other wildlife that doesn’t typically attract as much attention but is integral to a healthy ecosystem? Peering inside animals and organic matter can also tell scientists about coral growth rates, calcification of oysters, and even changes in sediment cores from the seafloor. In this way, the center’s focus isn’t just on saving wildlife, but also on protecting marine ecosystems more broadly. That work will become more important as climate change impacts the Gulf Coast in myriad ways: warming seawater expands the ranges of new species like manatees into Texas ecosystems; changing weather patterns bring more cold-stun events; and stronger hurricanes challenge our capacity to respond.

Gilbert has a long checklist to complete before opening day, but he leaves me with his hopes for the future of wildlife rescue. “At first it was, ‘Save that turtle and get it back in the wild. Save that dolphin and get it back in the wild.’ And over the last about eighteen months, we’ve really started to take that vision further,” he says.