In Port Aransas, A Turtle, A Funeral And Hope After Hurricane Harvey
The weather was good for the funeral. The sunset painted the Port Aransas sky in pinks, yellows and blues. The breeze off the Gulf cut the humidity. The crowd of 60 or so on the beach was dressed eclectically. Some wore t-shirts and swimsuits, others traditional black. They were all there to mourn Tony Amos. They would do it in a way that, probably, no man had been mourned before.
Lynn Amos, Tony’s wife, tried to instill order.
“If you could kind of spread yourselves a little bit thinner,” she asked over a muddy-sounding speaker system set up on the sand. “Michael will give the final speech and then we will release the turtle (…) and the man.”
To cap this service. Tony’s ashes would be spread on the shell of a live green sea turtle. That turtle would then carry the ashes out into the Gulf.
Why? If you knew Tony Amos, it makes perfect sense.
Mixed up in the Disaster
Tony was a renowned oceanographer, who stuck out in Port Aransas. He was British, tall and had a white beard and long white hair.
“Whenever he showed up, people listened,” chuckled Jace Tunnell, a friend and colleague of Tony’s. “He knew what he was talking about.”
Tony traveled to Antarctica 35 times in his career. He did research around the world. In Port Aransas, he’s remembered best for his animal work. He started rehabilitating injured birds and sea animals here in the 1970s — especially turtles.
Tunnell was giving me a tour a place once known as the Animal Rehabilitation Keep, or ARK. Tony founded it decades ago. It sits next to the Aransas Ship Channel, and, like nearly everything on the island, it did not fare well during Hurricane Harvey.
“This used to all be bird cages here, they were totally collapsed,” said Jace Tunnell, gesturing to what looked an area with some rough wood framing set up on it.
Tunnell heads the UT Estuarine Research Center. ARK is a part of it. He says staffers managed to evacuate the animals that were being cared for here before the storm. But, structurally, Harvey left nothing undamaged.
In a painful coincidence, Amos passed away from pancreatic cancer just a few days after the storm came through.
“It’s totally destroyed out here in Port Aransas,” said Tunnell. “Tony’s passing away was kind of mixed all up in that.”
Amos was on a trip home from viewing the recent eclipse when the hurricane took aim at the coast. He and his family stopped in San Antonio, where he was admitted to the hospital. That’s where he passed away on Sept. 4.
“He never got to see the ARK destroyed,” said Tunnell. “That’s a good thing.”
One of the things Tony Amos is best known for is his beach survey. A few days a week, he’d walk along Mustang Island and simply count things — birds, helicopters, dogs, people and the garbage that washed up on shore.
“I had the pleasure of driving down this beach several times a week with Tony,” said Pamela Plotkin, who worked for him as a graduate student. “I didn’t realize at that time that that trash had a story. But Tony taught me about trash and all of the different stories behind it”
Plotkin is now the director of the Texas Sea Grant at Texas A&M. I met her on the beach before the funeral. To prove her point about trash and stories, she showed me a green plastic bottle she’d just found. It had six or so diamond-shaped bite marks in it.
“Each of those is a bite by a sea turtle,” she said. “Probably a loggerhead sea turtle.”
She says more garbage has been washing up since the hurricane. She expects it to continue for some time.
Back to the Sea
At the funeral Lynn Amos read from Rupert Brooke’s The Dead. His son Michael spoke of Tony as a father. His daughter-in-law Tahlia recounted a conversation she had had with him.
“I got to speak to Tony a few days before his passing,” she said. “He told me with real concern and deep sadness ‘Isn’t it ironic that the storm may take away my entire life’s work and legacy?’”
At the end, as if to answer that concern — they brought out the turtle. A green sea turtle, about five years old, it had been rescued from fishing nets after the storm.
The family sprinkled Tony’s ashes on its back and placed it gently on the sand.
It was Lynn Amos who thought of this.
“I woke up saying ‘Ha! A turtle release!’” she said. “Instead of Tony releasing the turtle it would be the turtle releasing Tony.”
Her only condition was that the turtle had to be a feisty one.
"Tony didn’t want was for them to turn around and come back, which they did occasionally," Lynn said.
Though, after this one was put on the ground, he did seem to hesitate. Then with a little nudge from Tony’s son, he started to march into the waves.
As for what’s next? The Animal Rehabilitation Keep was recently renamed the Amos Rehabilitation Keep after Tony and Lynn. Jace Tunnel says it will be rebuilt “bigger and better.” Lynn says Tony’s work will continue.
And the sea turtle?
“I hope it’s going out and finding something to eat,” said Lynn. “Yes, I hope it has a long life.”