I had first heard of Padre Island years ago, when my younger brother went on a short vacation to Texas with a friend and visited Padre Island. I don’t remember the specific details, but the idea was enough to capture my imagination.
Maybe it was the name, at once evocative and vague; father island? Maybe it was the stories I heard later in life about the beauty of the Gulf of Mexico or the environmental tragedy that played out there. Whatever it was, something inside me was determined to visit Padre Island National Seashore if I ever got the chance. This spring, following up a two month road trip through Mexico, my long dormant dream awoke and I got my chance to visit Padre Island.
Padre Island National Seashore is actually the meeting of a father island with Mother Ocean. Laguna Madre is a hypersaline lagoon that stretches along the Southern Texas portion of the Gulf of Mexico. Laguna Madre is a good mother, home to 80% of the seagrass in Texas, and more finfish than anywhere else in the state. The hypersaline nature of the Laguna is special, being one of only six hypersaline lagoons in the world.
About 77 percent of North America’s Red Headed Ducks winter in the Laguna Madre. The only hypersaline adapted oysters in North America live there, too. The water on the Laguna Madre side of the island is glass smooth with nearly a ripple. The water is shallow; the Laguna Madre is only an average of 3.3 feet deep. The lagoon itself covers 609 square miles and is usually less than five feet deep. People in waders walk far into the water of the lagoon and fish in the quiet, calm, bright ocean. We watched a man windsurfing across the calm water at sunset.
Made of rolling sand hills covered in grass, long stretches of beach and tidal flats, Padre Island National Seashore itself encompasses 130,434 acres and boasts at being the longest undeveloped piece of barrier island in the world. Most of the National Seashore itself is road-less, yet driving on the long undeveloped stretch of beach is allowed, if only recommended to four wheel drive vehicles. On the eastern side of the island, open to the Gulf of Mexico, waves roll onto the sand, the water isn’t glassy calm like in the Laguna Madre. Brown pelicans fly over the rolling hills and beach in bobbing lines.
Tri-colored herons can be found hunting in the marshy areas of the island. There are small ponds, including at least one with a blind for birdwatching. Corpus Cristi, Padre Island’s nearest town, has won America’s Birdiest city award ten years running, which means they have more birds than any other city in the United States.
Crabs are everywhere, at least on the Laguna Madre side of the island. We arrived after dark and took our dogs for a walk, only to realize with some horror that we couldn’t take a step without crunching a crab under foot. The tiny arthropods run everywhere in the moonlight, their misbalanced claws flailing at any disturbance. In the day time all you see are tiny holes in the sand pock marking the beach. The crabs we saw are Ghost Crabs (subfamily Ocypodinae). Ghost crabs are pale and nocturnal, all but disappearing in the day. Crabs belong to subphylum of Crustaceans; there are 41 species of crustacean found on Padre Island, including at least 9 species of crab. Other crustaceans include shrimp, lobsters and barnacles.
Burrowing in the same intertidal sand as crabs are Ghost Shrimps. Ghost Shrimp have transparent exoskeletons, baring bright red organs. The shrimps are amazingly adapted to a constantly changing environment that fluctuates between flood at high tide and relatively dry and hot at low tide. Ghost Shrimp can survive up to six days with no oxygen and are an important food source for birds. Some of the holes I saw in the beach and assumed were crabs were probably the burrows of Ghost Shrimp.
Padre Island is home to five species of sea turtle and the only place in Texas where all five species found in the Gulf of Mexico have been known to nest. Most importantly, Padre Island is the best nesting location for the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the smallest turtle found in the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re lucky, and take a walk on the beach early in the morning during nesting season (April to September) you might spot the strange mechanical looking trackway of a mother turtle.
Dolphins and whales swim past Padre Island and the very lucky will see a fin or the spectacular spout of a blowhole. Unexpectedly, West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus) can sometimes be seen in the waters surrounding Padre Island.
There have been 149 species of fish documented by National Park Service staff at Padre Island National Seashore. Stingrays, hammerhead sharks, eels, tarpons and many others have been found. Fishing is incredibly popular here, especially on the calm Laguna Madre side of the island where I imagine the sport to be meditative and peaceful.
Perhaps surprising for a place so dominated by the ocean, Padre Island is also home to four frog species and six toads. There are also coyotes, white tailed deer, raccoons, a pocket gopher, black tailed jack rabbit and the Padre Island Kangaroo Rat found only on… Padre Island.
Despite being an island, there is a paved road connecting it to the mainland. It’s a little strange for someone like me who’s lived most of his life far from an ocean to drive a thin ribbon of asphalt across the ocean, but it’s much more convenient than a boat.
Beyond Padre Island National Seashore, the island itself stretches far. North of the National Seashore is Mustang Island State Park, which protects another five miles of coast. The park is similar to Padre Island National Seashore in being a place to explore the beach, camp or kayak on a paddling trail. There is also the small Packery Channel Park, a small nature park on the beach managed by Nueces County. Other campgrounds and small public parks aren’t hard to find north of the national seashore as well as restaurants and hotels.
South Island is the part of Padre Island that is most developed as a beachfront vacation destination. South Padre is known for the place to go to party or drink away a spring break rather than connect with nature. Still there is spectacular nature to be seen on South Padre Island and worthy organizations promoting environmental education. South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is an interpretive center that also hosts guided tours. Sea Turtle Inc. is another organization based on South Padre Island working to rehabilitate and conserve turtles, as well as educate the public.
Off the island, Laguna Madre continues, south and into Mexico. On the mainland of Texas, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge protects a chunk of the lagoon. Laguna Atascosa is also one of the few places in the United States you have even a slim chance of spotting an Ocelot in the wild. Although Ocelots are endangered and very rare in the US, a successful den was found in 2016 in Laguna Atascosa.
In Mexico, the southern part of the Laguna Madre is protected in Laguna Madre y Rio Bravo Delta State Park.
All together the different parts of the island and the ocean are a patchwork of different public and private lands, some relatively protected others sacrificed for the sake of partying in the sun. However, the island and the land around it is one beautiful whole of sun and water, fish and bird and mammal. Crabs dance on the sand at night and pelicans bob through the warm air in the day. There is fishing, there is kayaking, and there is windsurfing. There’s plenty of opportunity to sit and take the world in in its most sun bleached elemental state.