- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) - From her post behind the front desk, Imelda Villarreal has witnessed the Texas State Aquarium go from “itty-bitty” to hosting about half a million visitors every year since she started in admissions in March 1991.

“I’ve seen so many people come and go through here. I’ve met people from Spain, Germany, all over the world,” Villarreal said. “Most of the time, people are happy, and that’s what we’re here for. The aquarium is here for families, and we get so many returning visitors who say the aquarium has grown so much. It really has.”

The aquarium opened July 6, 1990. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times (https://bit.ly/1RiLxMD ) reports at the time, it had only the Gulf of Mexico Exhibit building, but now is home to more than 4,000 animals representing 320 species.

After a quickly made decision to work at the aquarium over H-E-B, Villarreal has manned the admissions desk nearly every day for the past 24 years. Her sister, Yolanda Tanguma, was the first in the family to work there in 1990 and helped her get the job. They plan to work there for years to come.

Villarreal remembers the days when the aquarium had to sell time tickets and allowed only 250 visitors in the building every half-hour. She has watched famous entertainers walk through the doors and remembers her excitement when dolphins arrived in 2003.

“Everybody says ‘How can you do it, day in and day out?’” she said. “It’s a job, but I like it. It went from this itty-bitty aquarium to now being expanded after 25 years.”

The aquarium celebrated its 25th anniversary Monday, including a special show with its resident bottlenose dolphins, Kai and Shadow. State Rep. Todd Hunter and aquarium board member Larry Urban were in attendance along with a packed audience at Dolphin Bay.

In the 19 years president and CEO Tom Schmid has been at the helm, the aquarium has introduced a new program or exhibit nearly every year and seen attendance grow exponentially.

“We’ve expanded our educational programming, and we’re now seeing between 60,000 and 80,000 kids each year,” Schmid said. “We’re starting to become an important force in conservation. We’ve rehabilitated over 1,000 animals and put them back into the wild.”

Schmid said because of the aquarium’s proximity to the coast and about six more acres to expand, there’s a chance it will be the largest in Texas with the added 65,000-square foot, $50-plus million Caribbean Journey exhibit, which is on schedule to be complete by 2017.

“At the end of the day, we want people to come away with a better appreciation for nature and the environment and hopefully take steps to change their behavior to facilitate helping the environment,” Schmid said. “We’ve had 12 million people visit the aquarium since Day 1. If we can connect people to nature, get them to fall in love with the animals and learn about the habitats, they’ll take action.”





Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, https://www.caller.com

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