HRI Director Larry McKinney on the Passing of Dr. John 'Wes' Tunnell

Published: July 16, 2018

HRI Director Larry McKinney on the Passing of Dr. John 'Wes' Tunnell

Wes Tunnell is the soul of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. World renowned ocean explorer and advocate Sylvia Earle was the inspiration and Ed Harte was the visionary, but Wes was the one to put it all together and make HRI a reality. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the Coastal Bend and the Gulf of Mexico owe him a debt of thanks for meeting that challenge. Wes and a small handful of dedicated colleagues stepped up when the opportunity arose to deliver on Ed’s vision. Where others may have faltered, they triumphed. All of us at HRI and beyond have reaped the benefit of that labor of love and determination. Many hands made HRI what it is today, but at its foundation, its soul, stands Wes Tunnell alone.

I have known Wes for many years. We were briefly graduate students together at Texas A&M University in College Station and we each followed each other’s careers from afar after we moved on. Me to Texas A&M University at Galveston and then Texas Parks and Wildlife, and he to his beloved Island University. Seemingly out of the blue, Wes called me with the extraordinary news of Ed Harte’s gift to TAMUCC. I think he was still a bit stunned by it all and just wanted to talk with someone who might appreciate what it meant. He had a vision of what HRI could be and he shared it. We talked for a long time about what it could mean to the Gulf of Mexico. We both loved America’s Sea and probably no one has been to or seen more of it than the two of us. We both traveled and studied the waters off Mexico — he more than I — but we shared many colleagues and secret places in that wonderful country. I may have spent more time on and under the blue waters of the Gulf, and he in Cuba, but together we pretty much covered it all. We knew the Gulf of Mexico as a hidden treasure, unknown to many as anything but an industrialized sea, and to some degree we were happy for it remain undiscovered by them. Wes was not willing to leave it be. He knew, as all of us at HRI know now, that in a sea where the environment and economy coexist and sometime contend, an entity like HRI is needed. Wes set about putting it together. Like the true scholar he was, Wes moved deliberately, taking the guidance of HRI’s extraordinary founding Advisory Council and assembling the foundation of what HRI has evolved into today. At its inception HRI was years ahead of its time in recognizing that people are part of the Gulf environment and our work must reflect that reality. The first endowed chair was Dr. Richard McLaughlin, a lawyer and marine policy expert! That was only the first of many innovative steps ahead of the times.

They made an extraordinary team — Bob Furgason, Gail Sutton and Wes as HRI’s founding leadership team. When I came onboard in 2008 upon Bob’s retirement as HRI’s first science-based director, this team had already assembled an amazing core of chairs and supporting staff. All I had to do was add the fisheries and socio-economic chairs and HRI was off to the races, and what an extraordinary run we have been on. As always, at the core was Wes, working tirelessly to help advance HRI in whatever way possible. As associate director, biodiversity and conservation chair, taking on whatever task I asked of him, he never faltered. I never thought he would. It was not even conceivable he would. Even as he struggled with his unrelenting foe, cancer, he never abandoned HRI, and after his family, I do believe his beloved institution was never far from his thoughts.

Mentor, scholar, colleague and friend — Wes Tunnell, the soul of HRI, stands alone.

Larry McKinney

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Dr. John “Wes” Tunnell first came to the Island University in 1974 when he joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor of Biology. Since then, his service and dedication to our campus – and to his field – extended well beyond the nearly 40 years he worked here. From launching four master’s degrees, and two doctoral programs, to developing the Natural Resources Center, Laguna Madre Field Station, and the Harte Research Institute – Tunnell’s impact across campus will be felt for many generations. He was instrumental in establishing the College of Science and Engineering's Center for Coastal Studies and seven graduate student scholarships - the University's first research center.

He also advised or co-advised 70 master’s students, seven doctoral students, and four post-doctoral research associates. 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. Often spotted wearing a wide brim hat and projecting an “Indian Jones” vibe, Tunnell was most known for finding prehistoric mammoth teeth on the Seven and One-Half Fathom Reef and for the discovery of an ancient coral reef off the coast of South Texas. He also acted as a media consultant on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for several national news outlets including CNN, ABC, and MSNBC. In 2016, The Harte Charitable Foundation established the Dr. John (Wes) Tunnell Jr. Fellowship 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.