Discover Your Island

Longtime Educator and Marine Ecologist Honored with Endowment for Student Fellowships

April 26, 2016

Tunnell Retires

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A new fellowship has been established to continue the teaching legacy of longtime educator, author and marine scientist Dr. Wes Tunnell, Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies Endowed Chair for Biodiversity and Conservation Science.

Inspired by Tunnell’s commitment to his students and to Mexico, the Harte Charitable Foundation has committed to funding the Dr. Wes Tunnell Gulf of Mexico Fellowship Program. The fellowship will support a Mexican or American graduate student with a commitment to research in Mexico while he or she pursues graduate education at the HRI and at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. 

“My family and I are deeply and sincerely appreciative of this designation and honor, but like my career working on the Gulf, and especially in Mexico, I am really happy for the opportunities this will provide to future generations of students,” Tunnell said. “I am also particularly gratified by the widening and deepening influence of A&M-Corpus Christi, HRI and the Harte family on the education, science, research and conservation all around the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S., Mexico and Cuba.”

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 in the late 1960s.  He is founder and former Director of the Center for Coastal Studies, and he assisted in the development of the Harte Research Institute, served as its first Associate Director and helped design its building.

Tunnell also assisted in the development of two Bachelor of Science programs along with four master’s degree and two doctoral programs at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Tunnell was also instrumental in establishing seven graduate student scholarships in the Center for Coastal Studies and has advised or co-advised 70 master’s students, seven doctoral students and four post-doctoral research associates.

“Through his efforts, our understanding and appreciation of the Gulf of Mexico has significantly increased,” said Dr. Larry McKinney, HRI Executive Director. “While A&M-Corpus Christi and its predecessor institutions have a distinguished lineage of well-known marine experts, Dr. Wes Tunnell easily stands first among them.”

For 32 years, Tunnell taught Coral Reef Ecology, taking students on two-week field trips to Veracruz and the Mexican Caribbean as part of an international teaching and research program. One of 18 classes Tunnell taught over the course of his career, he was known for making classrooms out of the deck of a boat and conducting his lectures while wearing scuba gear.

Dr. Kim Withers, Assistant Professor of Biology at A&M-Corpus Christi, was a student of Tunnell’s and later came to work for him in the Center for Coastal Studies, handling logistics for the Coral Reef Ecology class. A Renaissance man with varied interests, Withers said, Tunnell taught his students to look at the system as a whole, studying the mangroves, the birds, the invertebrates – even the local people – and the reefs that supported them.

“I learned so much from him, but I think the biggest lesson that I took away was that it’s about an education, not just a course,” Withers said. “In any lesson, there’s always room for history, geography, archaeology and botany, because everything connects. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”

The Harte Charitable Foundation will establish the fellowship program in perpetuity with the goal of continuing his work enriching the lives of students and scholars in pursuit of the conservation and study of the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Harte Charitable Foundation is deeply appreciative of the leadership that Dr. Wes Tunnell has provided to conceive and develop the Harte Research Institute,” said Don Perkins, Executive Director of the Harte Charitable Foundation. “First and foremost, Wes is a teacher. He has been dedicated to his students over the years. As a scientist, Wes has led HRI’s research initiatives in Mexico. We look forward to these students following in his footsteps.”

To view photos of Dr. Tunnell, click here and here.