HRI's Dr. Wes Tunnell advised Texas State Aquarium on their "Caribbean Journey"

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Isla de Enmedio -- Dr. Tunnell's Coral Reef Ecology class
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi students on the beach during a field trip to Isla de Enmedio led by Dr. Wes Tunnell.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — After years in the making, the Texas State Aquarium recently celebrated the opening of its new Caribbean Journey exhibit exploring the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a biodiverse region in Mexico’s eastern Yucatan Peninsula.

Sian Ka’an, meaning “Origin of the Sky," is a unique zone of interconnected marine, coastal and terrestrial ecosystems well-known to HRI’s Dr. Wes Tunnell, who has dedicated his career to researching and introducing his students to the reef systems of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mexican Caribbean. When the Texas State Aquarium decided to fulfill their vision of adding a Caribbean wing, Aquarium President and CEO Tom Schmid knew just who to call.

Tunnell, HRI’s Endowed Chair for Biodiversity and Conservation Science and Professor Emeritus, served as an adviser on this exciting new aquarium exhibit. A marine ecologist and biologist focusing primarily on coastal and coral reef ecosystems and a passionate science educator, Tunnell aided in the development of the original Texas State Aquarium beginning in 1978 and has also collaborated on science exhibits with the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Schmid reached out to Tunnell, aware of his research in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican Caribbean. Tunnell provided aquarium officials with his first-hand expertise of the unique ecosystem, supplying his books and papers on the Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Sian Ka’an. He also took Schmid, Texas State Aquarium Senior Vice President Jesse Gilbert, and later Texas State Aquarium Board Members on field trips to Quintana Roo and Sian Ka’an.

Tunnell is a passionate advocate for learning in the field. One of his claims to fame as a long-time educator at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi was leading his graduate students in a two-week field trip to either Veracruz or Quintana Roo as part of his Coral Reef Ecology class, an international teaching and research expedition he led for more than 30 years.

 “I discovered early in my Ph.D. work when a University of Miami professor took me on a two-week research cruise to the Bahamas that I wanted to be able to do that same thing for my students someday — to introduce them to the tropics,” Tunnell said. “That was the birth of my Coral Reef Ecology class.”

His firm belief in teaching students in the field and about not just the reefs but the interconnected systems that interacted with and supported them, including the coastal communities and culture, became a trademark of his teaching style.

“The best thing is always to see those glorious places in person, but not everyone can do that,” Tunnell said. “The aquarium has developed a nice model of what it looks like down there, and it should inspire visitors to go visit, or students to desire to study it.”

To get your own introduction to the tropics and experience some of the amazing habitats Tunnell and his students explored, be sure to visit the Texas State Aquarium this summer and check out their new Caribbean Journey exhibit, featuring pathways winding in and around habitats teeming with life, including vibrant coral formations, cenotes, and a sunken shipwreck. The exhibit also features a 400,000-gallon shark habitat, a 4D Theater, and hands-on and interactive exhibits.