All photographs by Victor Block
My 18-year-old granddaughter, Mollie, loves turtles. She has since she was little. So in all my travels, I’ve sent photos of turtles from around the world. But between the Turtle Rescue Center, the turtle conservation efforts and the expansive turtle art displayed throughout South Padre Island (SPI), my phone ran out of batteries before I could capture them all.
Although the Sea Turtle Art Trail is what first captures the imagination, a visit to the Sea Turtle Rescue Center is a good place to start the journey. Injured turtles from the Laguna Madre Bay often discovered by tourists and fisherman are brought to the hospital for rehabilitation and usually recover enough to be released back into the wild. The Center offers tours of its many residents in various stages of recovery, an extensive education program involving lectures and field trips and overseas the conservation program which patrols the beaches during nesting season from March to August to help the moms lay the eggs and the babes to find their way to safety once hatched.
And now it’s time for turtle art, where local artists transform fiberglass turtle forms into vibrant creatures of the sea. Tank is the largest turtle on the trail, covering the whole front of a store building. Other sculptures, spread throughout the island, sometimes reflect their artists’ proclivities. Crush, for instance, was inspired by the creator’s love of dogs. The visual theme of the turtle named Miracle tells of their miraculous journey, as its sign relates: “From the beaches where I nest, the inshore jetties and rocks where I grow to the deep open oceans where I live and breed.” A painted turtle named Rosie represents relaxation as a synonym for SPI – a turtle that definitely stops to smell the rosies….
Indigo, at the Visitors Center, comes by its name honestly: a rich, deep blue reminiscent of the ocean. Lucy, at the Sea Ranch Restaurant, weighing in at 400 pounds, is the largest hand-carved turtle made out of Mesquite wood. Some lovely Mesquite dolphin playmates are nearby.
Isla, 11 feet tall, is one of the largest sea turtles on the trail and her colorful design depicts the beauty of SPI, complete with sea life, palm trees and luminous islands. Every turtle tells a different story in its own uniquely creative way – and along with its companion Sandcastle Art Trail, provides delightful diversion to the usual beach shops and beach bars all along the main road of this appealing beach town.
And then I was on an actual beach, shovel and bucket in hand getting a lesson in what little kids have universally been doing forever. Only my instructor was a world-famous sandcastle sculptor – the first to introduce visitors to SPI to the art of sand sculpting – responsible for many of the more than two dozen wondrous creations gracing the same area as the sea turtles in what is called the Sandcastle Capital of the World.
As Lucinda Wierenga of “Sandy Feet” explained: “You always start with a firm base and then build smaller bases on top of that.” Of course, this required very sophisticated implements: a shovel, buckets, planters with the bottom removed, a pastry knife, a plastic spoon, a straw, and a toothpick. And what emerged, an hour later, were two very realistic-looking lighthouse towers, replete with stairs, windows, doors, brick-looking décor, ramps and a bridge connecting them protected by ramparts. Admittedly, hers looked a tad – okay, a whole lot – more professional than mine but I couldn’t deny the sense of pride that seeped through.
Among my favorite sculptures, which like the turtles adorn restaurants, hotels and attractions along Padre Boulevard, were the Tiki, a four-sided pyramid highlighting SPI’s signature animals: turtle, pelican, dolphin and alligator. A lounge-singing mermaid seemed a fitting choice for the Coral Reef Restaurant whose sculptor needed special dispensation to show her bare nipple.
The sculpture at the South Padre Island Inn was a surprise because it was actually of a sand castle – the traditional kind that kids most often build on beaches. Very unlike the huge Indian elephant god gracing the entrance to the Blue Bay Inn.
But nothing prepared me for Sandcastle Village – initially a vision of Lucinda’s – a huge tent-like structure housing a fairyland of colossal phantasmagorical creations celebrating holidays, animals, famous characters, castles – total immersion in a dream-like sequence of other-worldly shapes of giant proportion. There’s a huge Neptune and Santa; enormous butterfly and bear as well as alligator and iguana, a castle large enough that a dwarfed visitor can sit upon a throne and feel overwhelmed by its surroundings.
The intricacy and precision of the creations are revelatory. And all around are smaller heart-shaped carvings of personal salutations to loved ones and shout-outs to newborns that can be bought with a $20 donation. And often an artist is on hand to update a “tired” sculpture or create a new one. Despite my lesson at Sandy Feet, I did not yet qualify….
Ordinarily, South Padre Island’s main appeal is its beaches but I was visiting in February 2022, known for frigid temperatures nationwide. Fortunately, I was able to enjoy SPI’s sea (turtles) and sand in sculpted form. For more information, visit sopadre.com. There’s an Art Trails map showing the location of all the turtle and sand sculptures.