Port Isabel and South Padre Island

Port Isabel and the Queen Isabella Causeway leading to South Padre Island, as seen from Port Isabel Lighthouse

During our Texas stay, we made three trips down to South Padre. On our first, Cal had the brilliant idea of staying a couple of nights so we could be here for more than just one day. It didn’t take us long to get reservations booked after that suggestion. Our second visit, then, was our little mini vacation-away-from-our-permanent-vacation. The morning of the first day was our visit to Boca Chica that was in my previous blog.

South Padre Island lies just off the coast of extreme south Texas. The water in between the mainland and the island is part of the Intracoastal Waterway which goes all the way around the Gulf to the Mississippi River at New Orleans. It is also the southern part of the Laguna Madre, a long and shallow lagoon. Port Isabel is the last town before the bridge to the island.

We stopped at Port Isabel Lighthouse just before getting on the bridge.

Construction on the lighthouse was completed and lamps were lit in 1853. There was a period of stoppage during the Civil War. During that time, both sides used the lighthouse for observation. The last battle of the Civil War happened near here, more than a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

We climbed up 75 stairs and 3 ladders before we arrived at the top.   There we were rewarded with the view that you see at the beginning of this blog. It was also interesting to get a look at the multifaceted lens. For those interested in such details, it is a reproduction of a 3rd Order Fresnel Lens.  It was installed just this past December so that the lighthouse was lit for the first time in 117 years at that time.  That must have been a sight to see!

Being able to stay on the island meant that we didn’t need to get up super early to get a good start on our day. We visited South Padre Island Birding Center. This was an excellent stop. We started in their museum, which was mostly a very cute and adorable collection of baby alligators and turtles. Directly outside were some adult versions of the same. These animals are not able to be rehabilitated in the wild so they make their home here.

Big Padre and his little buddy

There were about a half mile of boardwalks over fifty acres of wetlands, with many various birds that could be seen.

An egret on a fishing expedition

From the boardwalk, we could look over the salt marsh, and down into the shallow waters where we could see the reason for the assortment of birds – there was an abundance of fish in all sizes.

The interesting thing about the Laguna Madre is that it is hypersaline, meaning that it is saltier than the ocean.  There are only five other lagoons like it in the world.  The water evaporates faster than freshwater flows into it because of the dry climate, its shallowness, and the fact that it has no significant river source.

A gathering of ducks and roseate spoonbills

Right next door to the birding center is Sea Turtle Inc., which is a refuge and hospital for sea turtles. South Padre Island is a nesting hotspot for Kemp’s Ridley turtles. The center also has several Green turtles. In 2022, they were able to rehabilitate and release 89 turtles, and protect 7,403 hatchlings. We were able to see large tanks of turtles who were not able to be released back into the wild.

Gerry, an Atlantic Green, who is a permanent resident

I was impressed at their ingenuity in giving the turtle below a new lease on life. Allison was missing three out of four of her flippers due to a predator attack, and all she could do was swim in left circles. The staff at the rehab center rigged up a brace so she can swim freely, although she cannot be released back into the wild.

Their hospital is under a tent while a brand new facility is under construction. They have smaller tanks in the hospital for those turtles who are still in states of rehabilitation. When it is exceptionally cold, sea turtles become cold-stunned. They are then weak and inactive, floating to the surface and washing up on the island. There is only a short period of time when they can be rescued. This past December a cold period happened where the organization rescued many turtles, and we saw five in the hospital which were still not yet ready to be released back into the wild from that event.

On our final trip out to South Padre we went out to the rock jetty where most of the turtles are found. It is on the very southern tip of the island in Isla Blanca County Park. It extends way out to sea. We did not see any turtles, but near the jetty is this statue:

It is a memorial to fisherman lost at sea. If you look closely on the left, you will see a grounded weather balloon.

Certainly, the main thing about going to the island is the beach! Driving all the way north of the island, the hotels and condos recede into the rearview mirror, and all that’s left is the dunes and the sea. That’s just the way it ought to be. The road just ends. You can drive on the beach and we could have turned around and headed to the last beach access, but that would have been too easy. We just parked the truck and hiked through the dunes with our Subway sandwiches and lawn chairs.

This friendly little bird led the way for quite a while on my beach walk

Next time – a cruise through the Port of Brownsville