My 18-year-old granddaughter, Mollie, loves turtles. She has since she was little. So in my travels, I’ve sent her 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 fishermen 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. It’s an extensive education program involving lectures and field trips. The rescue center also oversees the conservation program that patrols the beaches from March until August during nesting season. They help the moms lay their eggs and the babies find their way to the safety of the sea 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. One sculpture, named Crush, for instance, was inspired by the creator’s love of dogs.
Sea Turtle Sculptures Delight Visitors to South Padre Island, Texas
The visual theme of the turtle named Miracle tells the story 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.
At the Visitors Center, Indigo 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 unique and creative way. Sea Turtle Art Trail and its companion Sandcastle Art Trail, provide a delightful diversion from 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 and 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.
South Padre Island, Texas Deserves its Designation as 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. No technology is allowed.
And what emerged, an hour later, were two very realistic-looking lighthouse towers, replete with stairs, windows, doors, brick siding, 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 me.
All the sculptures use sand from the Rio Grande River because it’s illegal to remove any from the beach areas. And yes, they are actually made of sand.
You might wonder, what keeps these treasures from crumbling. It’s an easy answer: water and compaction. Add in a variety of more sophisticated techniques and ingredients ― AKA REALLY strong glue ― and you have a very impressive creation resistant to the elements ― as well as finger pokes, though the latter are severely discouraged. Some do begin to crumble a bit with time and the many island artists are always on the lookout for those that need repair.
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 sandcastle ― 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.
Sandcastle Village in South Padre Island, Texas is a One-of-a-Kind Creative Experience
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, an enormous butterfly and a bear as well as an alligator and an 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 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.
If You Go
For more information, visit South Padre Island online. There’s an Art Trails map showing the location of all the turtle and sand sculptures.