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Undersea Landmarks Named for Harte Research Institute and A&M-Corpus Christi Professor

December 09, 2015

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A newly mapped area of the Gulf of Mexico sea bottom will include geographic features named for the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies and its Endowed Chair for Biodiversity and Conservation Science Dr. Wes Tunnell.

Tunnell Mound is located on the upper continental slope south of Louisiana, and Harte Bank is located on the outer continental shelf among the South Texas Banks off southern Texas. Both were approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names this fall.

“It is a great honor and privilege to have something in the Gulf of Mexico named for me and my work. It is a good example of how collaborative work and sharing of data can pay off in the long run,” Tunnell said.

Tunnell Mound was discovered during an extended mapping effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted between 1988 and1992 on the Northwest Gulf of Mexico Continental Slope which revealed, for the first time, the great number of mounds, domes, basins, ridges, valleys and fans spanning the sea bottom.

HRI later led an effort to explore the South Texas Banks — where Harte Bank is located — onboard the 2012 inaugural expedition of the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor.

Tunnell was on board and researchers collected high-resolution, multibeam bathymetric data at most South Texas Banks.

A bathymetric chart is the underwater equivalent of a land-based topographic map, providing an accurate depiction of the underwater terrain that is usually hidden from human sight. Scientists cruised the South Texas Banks for two weeks at a time, running the multibeam sonar 24-hours a day as the ship passed from one bank to another mapping the underwater mountains and other sea-bottom features. It was during these missions that the Harte Bank was discovered. 

To avoid confusion in the study of this vast new landscape, large numbers of new names were proposed for the undersea features. Texas A&M University Department of Oceanography researchers Drs. Troy Holcombe and Bill Bryant submitted the latest proposal of more than 130 names, including Harte Bank and Tunnell Mound.

A total of 164 underwater features are named for Texas A&M University connections, believed to be the most of any university in the world. Holcombe and Bryant also have features named for them. Read more about the other A&M connections included in the latest naming.

These reefs and banks that rise from the soft muddy clay that covers most of the Gulf of Mexico are a unique feature of the sea landscape and an important habitat for Gulf species.

Many Texans are familiar with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, vibrant coral reefs that live atop a system of salt dome banks off the coast of Galveston, Tunnell said. But south of Matagorda Bay, the South Texas Banks are made up of remnant coral reefs that thrived tens of thousands of years ago during the Pleistocene Era or Ice Age, when the sea was much shallower. They host a vibrant array of marine life today, and have become a haven for invertebrates and the species that feed on them. The South Texas Banks are nicknamed the Snapper Banks by fishermen because they’re known to attract the valuable sportfish.

Tunnell is a marine ecologist and biologist focusing primarily on coastal and coral reef ecosystems, and has been studying the banks off South Texas since his graduate research work at Texas A&I University, now Texas A&M University-Kingsville, in the late 1960s. He is founder and former Director of the Center for Coastal Studies at A&M-Corpus Christi, and he assisted in the development of the Harte Research Institute, served as its first Associate Director, helped design its building, and lead the development of the University’s first science doctorate program, among other accomplishments.

Tunnell has published five books and more than 100 papers on topics related to the Gulf of Mexico.